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Catherine Murphy "drcath" (Norway)

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The Dream Life of Sukhanov
The Dream Life of Sukhanov
by Olga Grushin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Outlawed canvasses, 13 July 2008
It's 1985 and Soviet Russia is just about to hit its long overdue mid-life crisis. So is Anatoly Sukhanov, ex-surrealist painter turned government approved art critic and son-in-law to the regime's favourite artist, Pyotr Alekseevitvh Malinin, a man who has made his reputation by painting sturdy peasant women gathering in the harvest and heroic young men holding banners decorated with the hammer and sickle.

Sukhanov's not a bad bloke - his major crime in life has been selling out his art in order to provide a decent standard of living for his wife and kids, a situation many of us with creative dreams have to face. The problem is that poor old Anatoly starts to experience horrible dreams and fantasies that force him to confront the reality of the talent he has wasted. Crueller still, these fantasies mimic those paintings that he has condemned as "corrupt" and "un-Russian" in his position as editor-in-chief- of "Art of the World", Russia's leading art magazine.

This is a compact and effective little book in the expanding "post iron curtain" genre, which uses its main character to explore the effect of repression on the creative arts. The writing is controlled enough to keep the dream and waking-nightmare sequences from descending into Lovecraft, an ever present danger and Grushin manages the transition from reality to fantasy deftly. Most impressively, although I think she's writing in English (I can't find a translation credit) the prose has a touch of Tolstoy's lyricism. It's a little too one-note and predictable to deserve the usual hype plastered on the cover, but it's a great start and I look forward to seeing how this writer develops.

What Was Lost
What Was Lost
by Catherine O'Flynn
Edition: Paperback

11 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars "It was going to be a truly hellish day at Your Music", 13 July 2008
This review is from: What Was Lost (Paperback)
Hmmm. This would smell of "first novel" to me even if this wasn't advertised all over the front cover. How can I tell? you ask wide eyed. Perhaps it's the heavy reliance on personal experience (the sweet shop, the early eighties primary school, the shopping centre), perhaps it's the switch from one writing style to another to showcase that the author has Technique, perhaps it's the heavy editing which always, always shows, just like the alterations on a cheap suit, perhaps it's the use of the ghost story, a standard support for flimsy plots and a favourite of the aspiring scribbler, because so many of us got hooked on reading through that particular genre.

Having said all that, it's a decent enough, if wildly overpraised first attempt. A lonely young girl, whose diaries we read at the beginning of the book, fantasises about being a private eye and spends time at the recently constructed local shopping centre pretending to solve crime. One day, she disappears. Twenty years later, her disappearance is still unsolved, but her image appears on the CCTV of the same shopping centre, pulling a security guard and a shop assistant into reinvestigating what really happened years ago. There are a couple of fairly predictable plot twists and that's about it.

Thematically, O'Flynn is going for a critique of consumer culture, the point so brilliantly captured by the zombies staggering around the mall in Romero's "Dawn of the Dead". Shopping makes ghosts of us all. The trouble is that the fate of the girl and the journey of the characters has no relationship to that theme, so the exercise becomes as empty as the night time corridors of the Green Oaks Centre and left me with the unsatisfied feeling a whole day shopping for things I don't really need gives me.

The Little Friend
The Little Friend
by Donna Tartt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A little lost, 13 July 2008
This review is from: The Little Friend (Paperback)
Donna Tartt has chosen some tough acts to follow with her second book: William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Carson McCulloch, some of the greats of literature have set their work in America's South and at least two have chosen as their subject girls on the edge of puberty. Perhaps it's unfair to judge Tartt's book against these, but the comparisons are inevitable. Having said that, she does a fair job. The strength of her writing (as with many female authors in my opinion) is her eye for detail. She recreates a small Mississippi town in the 1970s, right down to the boiled peanuts and Country Club swimming pool, the smiley face t-shirts and Wacky Pack stickers. The trap of such writing, entertaining though it is, is that the setting becomes the story.

The book concerns the Cleve family, in particular Harriet Cleve Dufresne, a clever neglected child of Southern gentility on their uppers. Harriet's older brother, Robin, is found dead when Harriet is a baby, a blow from which Harriet's mother and her marriage never really recover. Harriet resolves to find the killer of her brother (although we never discover if his death is nothing more than a tragic accident) and the story takes us through the summer of her investigation and the consequences of this for a family of backwoods drug dealers, the Ratliffs.

And that's really all there is to it. If you enjoy reading meticulous descriptions of the houses of each of Harriet's many aunts, exchanges between Harriet and her devoted follower Hely, the bizarre family life of the Ratliff brothers and their permanently-on-the-edge-of-death grandmother, Gum, then this is the book for you. In my opinion, these kinds of pen portraits, undriven by the necessities of a plot, work best when they are refined and condensed, a la Carson McCullers for example. Otherwise, it can become a pointless ramble the reader has to wade through to get to the next event. This might matter less if all the description had some thematic point - to illustrate the huge social changes that were going on at that point in American history for example - but the town, Alexandria, and the Cleves exist in a vacuum, so the exquisite detail just become an end in itself.

In summary: well written, entertaining, but lacks edge and clarity through weak plotting and lack of thematic development.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 27, 2014 2:33 PM BST

by Nicola Barker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Follow you, follow me, 13 July 2008
This review is from: Behindlings (Paperback)
I'm not one of the "I paid good money for this so I'm going to grit my teeth and finish it whether I like it or not," school of readers. I have enough of the finish-your-greens mentality to persevere with an author to around the half way mark, but if she or he hasn't hooked me by then, back it goes on the shelf.

Disappointingly, Behindlings ended up between other tomes, unfinished. I had high hopes, having read other reviews praising the authors wit and energy and now, flicking through and trying to pin down the problem, I think it is a matter of style as a replacement for substance. Barker seems to be trying to position herself as a cooler, more allusive version of Tom Sharpe - the surrealist characters, the absurd situations, the occasional political overtones - but the trouble with this is that it ends up like Charlie Chaplin trying to be funny without falling over or getting a pie in his face. Overblown humour which tries for subtlety, stops being funny.

Add to this Barker's liking for italics to create meaningfulness, where a well chosen adjective would have done the work and to use the dreaded three dots...because she can't think what her character is going to say next and putting clauses in brackets (because otherwise her sentences would become far too long) and you have a style which is choppy enough to induce a case of seasickness in even hardened sailors like me.

For the record, Behindlings concerns a man called Wesley, who has, due to some earlier transgression, fed most of his fingers to an eagle owl. He is dealing with his shady past, by creating a shady future and is observed in his misdealing, by a group of followers. This bunch of misfits are thrown scraps by Wesley in the form of obscure clues which are leading them to some hinted at but never defined prize. There are other people: a wronged woman that Wesley knows, a man who is covered in sawdust, a man who walks a lot. The whole thing is set on Canvey Island and if the above sounds vague, that's because it is.

The overall effect is a little like a bad dream - not the Grand Guignol beast-in-the-cupboard variety - but the slightly queasy shouldn't-have-eaten-that-cheese type where one is condemned to walking endlessly through dim office corridors, or to having a job interview where none of the questions make sense.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 7, 2013 6:44 PM BST

Auschwitz : The Nazis & The 'Final Solution'
Auschwitz : The Nazis & The 'Final Solution'
by Laurence Rees
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story simply told, 13 July 2008
There are few places in the world that can tell their own story simply from the mention of their name. Hiroshima perhaps, Shangri La maybe (if it were a real place). Just the title of this book immediately evokes a response in the reader. We know what we are going to be told before we scan the first page.

So how to approach a subject that carries with it such emotional baggage and preconceptions? One often used method is the "Hobsbawm" approach - the laying on of thick layers of detail, facts and figures, as if reciting the precise quantities of cruelty can somehow blunt the emotional reality of what happened. Another is the "reality TV" approach - the eye witness account, the loving reconstruction of just what it was really like to be an inmate, this time aiming for the opposite effect, the kind of simplistic overidentification that had a modern expression in the aftermath of Diana's death. Heaven forbid they should start heaping bouquets at the end of this particular rail track...

But to return to the subject, Laurence Rees, a writer and producer of distinction and intelligence, has found a third way, a blend of hard facts and testimony that not only conveys the searing reality of the Final Solution (a term he points out was never actually used by the Nazis in the way it is now) but also distances itself enough to allow important conclusions to be drawn about how this abomination was allowed to happen and how (God help us) we might be able to avoid doing it again. It's not an easy task and some people might feel that it's too light a read for so heavy a subject, but don't be fooled: Rees has an eye for the devastating detail that carries more weight than a thousand numbers can. We all know about the heaps of glasses, the mountains of shoes. Rees find a more telling example: the silent funereal procession of baby carriages that were removed during a warehouse clearout. According to one prisoner, it took an hour to wheel them all by.

From this, Rees draws the lessons that begin to emerge from the testimonies of the most talented of the Holocaust witnesses - people like Bruno Bettelheim and Primo Levi - that we all have it in us to commit atrocities, that self interest packaged as ideology is an intoxicating blend and that conformity can very often be the enemy of virtue.

Their Darkest Hour: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII
Their Darkest Hour: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII
by Laurence Rees
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not my lightest one either, 13 July 2008
The trouble with reading too many books about our dark periods of history is the lowering effect it can have on the rest of ones life. Loved ones become accustomed to lectures over breakfast on the iniquities of Nazi Germany. Squabbling children are reminded about the consequences of unbridled human aggression. Family shopping trips are punctuated by laments on the consumerist nature of today's culture. After a literary diet of "Auschwitz" and "Their Darkest Hour", it's back to the Moomintrolls and Clive James for me. That or I'll find myself banished to the Sunnydays asylum for over-serious wives and mothers.

But I digress. "Their Darkest Hour" is a fine piece of work and a very necessary read for anyone trying to understand the lessons that a conflict like WWII might teach us. Rees has used the source material from his other historical works to construct a readable, thoughtful and intelligent assessment of what war can teach us about ourselves as humans. The lessons might seem simplistic, but if they were, we wouldn't be inclined to make the same mistakes over and over again. Obviously. And in a clever piece of journalism, Rees juxtaposes material from the various "sides" in the conflicts to demonstrate neatly and quietly, that no one culture can lay claim to evil or the capacity to commit it. We may vary in the way we express our basest instincts, but there's no blue print for producing bad behaviour, or for that matter, altruism. Shattering the smug assumptions about "goodies" and "baddies", which are almost universally fostered in WWII reporting, is one of the most important effects of this book.

So impressed am I, that I plan to read Rees' two other works: "Nazis: A Warning from History" and "Nightmare in the East" in due course. Meantime, in the interests of domestic harmony - "One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins. It fell softly and quietly and in a few hours everything was white."
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 16, 2010 11:48 AM BST

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smoke and Mirrors, 13 July 2008
This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Paperback)
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed Cloud Altas. I'm recommending it to you. I even recommended it to my mother. It's just that when I sat down to write this review, I found myself conflicted over exactly how I felt about it.

It's an enjoyable read, there's no doubt about that. David Mitchell has pinpoint control of his writing to the extent that he can evoke the six different scenarios that form the book flawlessly. It's innovative, energetic, clever. But...

Let's backtrack. Cloud Atlas is written in the form of six separate stories, all in the first person, spanning history from the diaries of an American lawyer making a business trip to Australia via the South Sea Islands on a ship straight out of Moby Dick, to the account of the last days of the human race, as we battle each other, disease and the environmental consequences of our past mistakes. The book is constructed so that each narrative ends on a cliffhanger, to be taken over by the next and then repeated in reverse order, so that we can finally discover what happens next to each of the protagonists. There is, of course, a linking theme, helpfully pointed out in the blurb: these are the worlds that result from the expression of what Nietzche called "the will to power". Dominance of one group by another, the desire to amass resources no matter what the cost to others, the destruction of the self by allowing our desires free rein are the ideas that Mitchell explores in his six scenarios. To knit the whole together, each story references the one before, to give the sense that the characters are connected, despite their distance from each other in time and circumstances.

So why my reservations? The word "clever" is the key. It's good to read a novel which has a point, especially one as serious as this and it is refreshing to come across an author who isn't frightened to take a hard look into the dark heart of human nature. However, to lighten the intellectual load, Mitchell has used a structure for his storytelling which is intriguing, but ultimately dilutes the central message. Switching from one narrative to the next makes it hard to make much emotional investment in each character, the crucial prerequisite to then feeling repulsion at the consequences for these individuals of unfettered greed. Ironically, the result is exactly the kind of emotional distancing that allows atrocities like the ones he describes to occur.

It's not the first time that cleverness has got in the way of telling the story: Gunther Grass and Thomas Mann should both have been awarded prizes for that. This is an error of trying to be too entertaining, not over earnest, but I am still left with a sense of disappointment that a novelist of such obvious gifts feels the need to resort to elaborate tricks to sugar coat an important message. Perhaps the next time, he'll tell it straight.

Oh and one more thing. Calling a character Luisa Rey and having her fall off a bridge? Enough with the literary in-jokes already.

Is Anybody Up There? Adventures of a Devout Sceptic
Is Anybody Up There? Adventures of a Devout Sceptic
by Paul Arnott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pointless in Gaza, 13 July 2008
It's a pity about all these shouty atheists, like Richard Dawkins, writing books telling people that they're silly to believe in God. Atheists are such party poopers, aren't they, like the people who tell you that mobile phones give you cancer or that homeopathy doesn't really work. You see, I like to write books that sort of wander along amiably, recounting anecdotes about my life with some kind of religious connection, so that I can insert a few sentences about Sikhism, or Buddha and then, just before I manage to draw an interesting or meaningful conclusion, meander off again into some other story from my youth that only I and my nearest and dearest are likely to find of any relevance at all, rather like a joke with no punch line or a story told by a likeable, but boring drunk at a drinks party. Speaking of drinks parties, my mother used to throw them every week: there was Sangria and Ritz crackers with cream cheese and half a grape on them and once a young woman in a mini skirt came whose convent education made her have visions of the Madonna and that might give you a flavour of the combination of irrelevant detail and religious non-sequitur I specialise in.

Because I'm a bit of a Roger Deakin at heart, except I don't know as much as he did about trees, so instead I pick on a subject that interests lots of people and pretend to know about it. My conclusion is to get vaguely annoyed about those spoil sports the atheists and the way they ruin people's sense of wonder, because having a sense of wonder is the spiritual version of eating your five a day, or watching BBC 2 documentaries. So all you nasty old atheists can go away and leave the rest of us to potter about believing in Something and, when we actually meet someone with another faith, behave like civilised, well educated westerners should and patronise them.

There's one now. I say, old chap, what's that you've got in your ruck sack?
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 9, 2010 3:44 PM GMT

Beautiful Children
Beautiful Children
by Charles Bock
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What happens in Vegas, 21 May 2008
This review is from: Beautiful Children (Hardcover)
If you like TC Boyle, if the stories of Raymond Carver strike a chord, then Beautiful Children is for you. The story is set in Las Vegas, the throbbing heart of America's lie about itself: that life is a game that can be played and won. It's a downbeat tale, centering on the disappearance of a twelve year old boy, the struggle of his parents to deal with the disaster, the events that led up to it, but most importantly, the connections between this and a carefully selected cast of others, the flotsam and jetsam that wash up on Vegas's grimy shores, or who strive to make a living there and not be overwhelmed by the brutal realities of a city whose sole purpose is to entertain.

Bock says in his afterword that the book took a long time to write. All of that effort shows on the page. There are a lot of words, but they all need to be there. It's rare that I don't become impatient with a story, flipping to the end to get the resolution without having to wade through the author's attempts to keep me engaged. Beautiful Children is one of those rare exceptions. OK, I did weaken and turn to the back at one point, but the story is so well put together, that cheating didn't work. I had to go back and read the rest to find out why things end up the way they do. I like that about a book.

There are a few niggles. Newell, the lost boy, is twelve when he vanishes. I felt he should have been a year older, or more mature, for the logic behind his disappearance to really work. The story of one character, a low rent comic book artist, loses momentum and trails away in the middle section of the book. As he represents the "tourist" in Bock's tarot array of types, his perspective is needed all the way through, to keep us remembering that there is a world outside the oasis of casinos. The lives of the teenage runaways seem a little too gruesome to be true (but I've never been one, so what would I know?).

But these are just niggles. It's not for hopeless romantics. It's not for those who like tidy endings with sunsets. It's not for those who think the porn industry is good clean fun. Beautiful Children is for those of us who like to be provoked, to be invited to draw connections and to ponder the improbabilities of the world.

The Wild Places
The Wild Places
by Robert Macfarlane
Edition: Hardcover

214 of 231 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as Wild as Wildwood, 23 Nov. 2007
This review is from: The Wild Places (Hardcover)
Is it a coincidence that Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane were both writing a book with "wild" in the title at roughly the same time? Deakin, a friend of Macfarlane's, died shortly after completing "Wildwood", Macfarlane was completing his manuscript when Deakin died.

"Wild" is big book business at the moment and why not? 21st century European life seems to guarantee a divorce between self and environment and people turn to books, if not their walking boots, to fill the gap. Macfarlane visits the wild places of the British Isles and tries to capture their essence in prose for those of us who don't want to stir from our sofas (that includes me by the way). It is an admirable endeavour and an enjoyable read, but I reserve the fourth star for the following reasons:

It is repetitive - there are 3 things that Macfarlane does on every trip: bathe somewhere cold, pick up a stone and sleep in the open. There are only so many ways to describe this routine, without reader fatigue setting in.

There is a distance between the writer and the rest of us he does not care to bridge. Who is he? Why is he qualified to write about the wild? What relevance does it have to the rest of his life? Without answers to these questions, I can't connect with the writing and it becomes chilly and perhaps a touch preachy.

The anecdotes that provide the contrast with the description of place tend to be perfunctory and, again, repetitive. The Highland Clearances and the Potato Famine both figure. There seem to be several poets who keep mental illness at bay/achieve inspiration by walking in the countryside. There are probably general lessons about the historical reasons for some areas being people-free and our relationship with nature, but Macfarlane is coy about drawing them out.

In summary: worth reading, but Deakin is better.
Comment Comments (11) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 7, 2015 12:34 PM BST

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