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Zen Omnibus: "Ratking", "Vendetta", "Cabal"
Zen Omnibus: "Ratking", "Vendetta", "Cabal"
by Michael Dibdin
Edition: Paperback

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than average crime fiction, 30 Dec. 2003
The Zen Omnibus, 3 novels in 1, kept me well-entertained on my sun lounge this summer.
The first novel in the omnibus, "Ratking", is the best because the writer frequently goes out on a limb with the narrative. There are some delightful stylistic flourishes which unfortunately are not repeated to a sufficient degree in the other 2 books.
The principal character is Aurelious Zen. Who and what is this man? Is he conventionally unconventional or vice versa? I could argue either way. He's not an easy character to get to know. Only by the end of the book does he become less blurry. He is an easy character to like, however, with his thwarted attempts to become a brilliant member of the police force. He has as many problems with internal politics as he does with his criminal investigations. The solutions to the latter are almost always unorthodox, but credible enough at the same time.
Credible too is Dibdin's Italy. Zen's escapades read nothing like a dry tourist guide and it is a reasonably modern Italy in which Zen conducts his strange business.
The only flaw in the books is the romance between Zen and Tania. Their dialogues made me cringe. Also the mother lacks credibility: she goes from a comatose state to being the world's most popular babysitter in a too short space of time.
Even so, this book added to an enjoyable summer holiday and was a welcome sun-lounge companion.

Memoirs Of A Geisha
Memoirs Of A Geisha
by Arthur Golden
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars tantalising but where is the heart?, 30 Dec. 2003
This review is from: Memoirs Of A Geisha (Paperback)
This book always feels like a cheap imitation of real geisha life, never a slice of it.
One of the strangest things about this imitation is its failure to make me cry. I am a reader who cries often. I am a reader who cries easily. I am a reader who loves to cry! I love to feel the pain of others and through their pain, my own pain (sob, sob). Why then does "Memoirs of a Geisha" leave me so dry-eyed? I blame the writer. He doesn't get to the heart of matters. He doesn't wring the sentimentality out of situations. This is unforgiveable since Golden has such perfect situations in which to pluck the heartstrings of the reader.
Or should I blame the protagonist, Chiyo? She tirelessly spouts trite similes and this becomes very irritating after a very short time. Also, she is full of false modesty and is generally insincere and phony. My heart hardened against her.
This is a long novel and in spite of its emotional defects it had me in its spell. The raw material is excellent: it just needed a cleverer, more intuitive, more caring treatment.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2012 3:34 PM BST

Wonderful Fool (Peter Owen Modern Classic)
Wonderful Fool (Peter Owen Modern Classic)
by Shusaku Endo
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and not foolish at all!, 30 Dec. 2003
'Wonderful Fool' goes where Western novelists cannot. Endo just gets on with the story. He doesn't try to define or psychoanalyse Japan. He is not obsessed with geisha or tea ceremonies or ascents of Mt Fuji. However, in the minutiae of the narration, there is much over which Japanophiles can get excited. (Although it was written some 50 years ago, the novel reveals a fairly modern Japan).
The snapshots of Tokyo are great. We get a taste of seedy-Tokyo, gangster-Tokyo, business-Tokyo, after-work Tokyo and suburban Tokyo. Are these snapshots real or pure fiction? Who cares! They leave the Lonely Planet guide for dead.
Endo's action scenes are an unexpected treat and call to mind manga. There is something quintessentially Japanese about their delivery. The whole of the translation is the same. I love the choice of words and phrases - the English is flawless yet it has a ring of scholarly foreigness about it. Mixed with violence - which is graphic enough (shovels are brought down emphatically on heads, outstretched hands are stomped on) - is comedy. There are some extremely funny moments in this novel.
In addition, the story is layered perfectly and excitement mounts as the climax draws nigh. The end, unfortunately, is a bit of a let down. But since it's such an irrepresible book, and since I received such an entertaining insider guide through Tokyo, I got over this disappointment quite quickly.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely but with occasional overdoses of schmaltz, 30 Dec. 2003
This is paper and ink that through the mystical alchemy of writing becomes something other.
The descriptions of early twentieth century Brooklyn are vivid and observant. The neighbourhood is brought to life in all of its squalor and glory. Francie Nolan, the heroine, is often hungry and cold and she lives in the slums but she cannot complain of boredom. The world is at her doorstep and she is a resilient child living in the new world. She is not condemned to live the tough old life that her parents and grandparents lead. An optimistic note underpins the harshness of Francie's existence.
There is some exploration of social and family issues throughout the book and these are thought-provoking. The thing I like best though, is the book's pathos. I wept a lot while I read 'A Tree'. I wept for the poor Nolan children at every turn. I was very moved by my tears and shall certainly pull this book out again when I need to let go of my emotions! Smith really knows how to wring the reader's heart out. It's mostly in the small ways that she gets me - the ways in which people show one another that they care, the unselfish acts, the unasked for kindnesses, the strong helping the less strong.
This is a lovely book with only a few overdoses of schmaltz (what could be more fitting for a story set in Brooklyn?) I guarantee you won't be left dry-eyed.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked Years)
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked Years)
by Gregory Maguire
Edition: Paperback

6 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Overrated. Disappointing., 29 Dec. 2003
This book is a disappointment but I must confess that I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. Fiction such as this, which presents a completely imagined world, requires too much patience for me.
The book's cover is littered with glowing testimonials and the readers of give it good reviews. Don't let this fool you. Where it says on the cover "very close to being an instant classic" I think the reviewer means "very far from being anything like a classic".
Believe me, I wanted this book to provoke my thinking on the nature of good and evil but the characters were too unrecognizable and their world too foreign. The ideas drifted. The philosophy was dressed up in too many different guises. I had a hard time remembering who the players were and where the action was taking place and what significance these people and locations had, if any.
I thought I would have an affinity with the heroine, Elphaba, the wicked witch, but I didn't. Although she had anything but an easy life, she wasn't a character whose pain I could share. Furthermore, she was not especially wicked anyway. The world that she inhabited was unjust and her response to it was obscure: she tried to create flying monkeys.
I will grant that Gregory Maguireìs prose has a certain magic. In such a long and tedious book, he keeps his words fresh and vigorous. There is much wit and originality and this greatly enhances the world that he conjures up. However, I won't be reading any more of Maguire's books and I doubt that I will ever re-read this one. I will stay right away from fantasy fiction in future.

Anthony Blunt: His Lives
Anthony Blunt: His Lives
by Miranda Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An almost perfect spy?, 29 Dec. 2003
The biography is aptly titled. Anthony Blunt really was a man with a multi-faceted life - more like a few lives crammed into one - complete with paradoxes and contradictions aplenty. In many ways he was an unlikely spy, and by the same token, an almost perfect one!
This is a meticulously written biography. Carter digs deep and wide with her research and reports back in a calm, measured, credible and lengthy manner. An excellent collage of Blunt is built up. Conflicting views of the man emerge - petty/professional, cold/effusive, insightful/blind, opinionated/persuadable - and this really helps to establish the light and shade in the man's nature. Carter makes human that which could easily have been made monstrous.
The only caution I hazard about this book is that the Pan McMillan paperback version contains numerous, silly typos. Otherwise this is a stimulating, entertaining and sustaining book.

Love in a Cold Climate (Penguin Modern Classics)
Love in a Cold Climate (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Nancy Mitford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

18 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enter into the cosy world of Mitford, 27 Dec. 2002
If, like me, you are no fan of the parasitic landed gentry, don't worry: this trifecta of novels will confirm rather than contradict your views and it will give you greater ammunition for arguments against elitism. The upper-class [...] who inhabit Mitford's stories regularly disgrace themselves and do little to justify their existence. But after the first novel, The Pursuit of Love, you may well forget politics and class issues. Mitford's novels are clever, entertaining and funny. She writes exceedingly well, she keeps the stories moving and she doesn't pretend to be anything that she's not. She lets us live vicariously through her silly, snobbish characters for a while and if we emerge, at the end of the stories, with no greater sympathy for those characters, is that such a bad thing?
I highly recommend this collection.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 26, 2010 9:34 AM GMT

Snakes and Ladders (Dirk Bogarde's Autobiography)
Snakes and Ladders (Dirk Bogarde's Autobiography)
by Dirk Bogarde
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-staged, beautifully executed, 20 Dec. 2002
What better way to live vicariously for a while than to read this second installment of Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography? Snakes and Ladders is the boy to man bit of the story. The ‘boy’ bit finds the young Bogarde at war while the ‘to’ bit finds him making a life for himself (and what a life!) as an actor, after the war.
The account of his war years is familiar English, soldierly territory, told by someone who was actually there. While the war is a part of Bogarde’s life, it doesn’t necessarily define or shape his life in the way that war is supposed to, according to popular fiction. It’s interesting too that he does most of his
growing up after the war rather than during it.
It's Bogarde's post-war life that dominates this autobiography. His road to success as an actor is anything but smooth and even when he does eventually achieve critical acclaim, there are many
who think he doesn’t deserve it.
There are descriptions of Bogarde's many and varied houses in England and on the continent. In all of these places he plays host to an assortment of characters from stage and screen, some famous, others not so. Many of these visitors become loyal friends and make regular appearances throughout the story. The weekends, the parties, the walks in the country and the Christmases are delightfully evoked.
It's a shame that Bogarde says nothing about his love interests or sexual inclinations. It leaves a big hole in his story. The reader is left to speculate wildly on the writer's reasons for his silence.
Nevertheless, this is an absorbing autobiography written attentively and lovingly. It's a book that is a pleasure to read.

Ripley Under Ground
Ripley Under Ground
by Patricia Highsmith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gruesome but gripping, 20 Dec. 2002
This review is from: Ripley Under Ground (Paperback)
This is a good book but it is perhaps not quite as good as The Talented Mr Ripley. How could it be? All the same, it's a rich, compelling story with great locations.
Ripley is more mature here. He is not the gauche boy he was in the previous book who still had so much to learn. Nor is Ripley the underdog - he has fashioned a nice little life for himself in which he enjoys considerable leisure and luxury.
The means by which Ripley has arrived at his new found wealth are criminal and he must exercise further criminality in order to maintain his lovely life. Murder, impersonation, fantastic lies - Ripley is at it again and he must constantly plot, plan and scheme in order to stay ahead of the law.
All this in a sea of superb writing with Highsmith's characteristic sharpness, pace and attention to detail. This book is different to its predecessor, mostly because Ripley is different and his circumstances have certainly changed. I'm not sure that I understand Ripley any better after this book, but then again, his unusualness is part of his appeal.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2009 7:07 PM BST

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