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R. A. Davison (UK)

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Price: £4.72

3.0 out of 5 stars A confused mix, 13 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Absolution (Kindle Edition)
Successful elderly writer Clare Wald, summons young journalist Sam Leroux to her home with the intent of allowing him to be her biographer, and their conversations illuminate her back story.

Set in modern day South Africa the events of the novel are placed against the backdrop of the fairly recent political upheavals of that nation, the findings of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission for example are referenced often. The novel is constructed in an odd way, and at times this made it difficult to read. Split into three sections it at times has sections from Clare's perspective and then Sam's interspersed with excerpts from Clare's final novel, a 'faction' named 'Absolution'.

Clare did not choose Sam for the task for no apparent reason Sam & Clare have a link, a link neither is able to discuss, and as Sam's narrative contradicts what Clare sets forth in 'Absolution' it becomes harder to know what really happened, and in some respects this is the point of 'Absolution' how, when in absence of the facts, we make up fictions in our minds of events we know to have happened but do not know the detail.

Another strand of Absolution revolves around guilt and responsibility, how responsible is a person when a remark they make sets forth a chain of events they didn't foresee culminating in disaster.

The problem with 'Absolution' as a novel and what makes it become hard work as a read is that these points about history and responsibility become laboured and the making of them ultimately occurs at the cost of the narrative : the plot becomes damaged and skewed by the authors apparent need to make them. A lengthy diatribe about censorship for example is just entirely out of step with the rest of the plot.

By far the most interesting aspect of 'Absolution' is the fate of Laura, a fate that is ultimately left hanging in mid air, with the onus on the reader to infer what they can.

All in all the novel is something of a mixed bag that does not entirely flow together very well despite containing excellent idea

Memoirs Of A Geisha (Vintage 21st Anniv Editions)
Memoirs Of A Geisha (Vintage 21st Anniv Editions)
Price: £3.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The difference 12 years makes, 13 Oct. 2013
I first read Memoirs Of A Geisha and loved it when I was either 20 or 21. The reason I'm reflecting on it now that I am 32 is because I re-read it for book club last month.

It is the story of Chiyo, a young girl from a fishing village sold into the geisha culture by her elderly father as her mother lays dying. Her older sister Satsu fairs worse - directly sold into prostitution. Geisha are not prostitutes in traditional Western understanding terms more entertainers for wealthy men.

What I loved about it the first time round was the elegance of the prose which I found poetic and evocative - a portrait of a time, place and tradition which has all but disappeared. It has the qualities which I so like about literature in general, a sense that the existence of the novel enables the reader the time travel.

On a second read it was surprising to me that I did not empathise with Chiyo anymore after she transforms into Sayuri, I found the life of the Geisha girls shallow and repetitive and Sayuri herself an ungrateful and at times nasty character.

There are certain points I think at which the reader is meant to be cheering Sayuri on but I couldn't help but feel concern for those who had been damaged by her actions rather than rejoice in her triumphs.

I hated her ultimate vindictiveness towards a character who had always, always taken care of her and I felt her "romance" with the Chairman lacked foundation, substance or credibility.

It's a really, really odd thing to love a book on first read and feel less enamoured of it on second read and I have to say that I think it must be something to do with maturity and the way your views on life and what you see as love change as you age.

My different opinions on the events in the book have shown me how much I have changed in ten years, and that's a really odd sensation. Try it with a book you once loved and see if the book is a different book because you are a different person.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie Collection)
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie Collection)
Price: £3.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unexpectedly enjoyable, 13 Oct. 2013
I wouldn't normally choose an Agatha Christie but I participated in an online group of 3 people who each chose a book and then we all read all 3, my first thought I must confess was book snobbery "An Agatha christie, really?" but I ended up really enjoying it.

In this novel, in classic Agatha Christie style, ten people are invited to one of those old fashioned Downton Abbey type country getaways. Nobody seems to have been perturbed to have been invited to a soiree held by someone they've never heard of, but I guess those were the times amidst a certain social class. Also nobody seems to have twigged that the name of the host U N Owen might be a problem, but in order to legitimise the parameters of the mystery you kind of have to accept that this is a logical decision for these people to accept these invites and in some cases more than others, it is.

Once they arrive on the isolated island, they are all accused of the same thing, namely, that they once got away with murder, and then, as revenge for their crime, they all begin to die......

I liked the style of this novel and I enjoyed trying to work out who was responsible for bringing them all to the island.The poem which we are introduced to before the story begins, was a nice structure to weave the story around, though I do hear it was a decidedly more offensive poem upon original publication!

At times the deaths are too rapid in a way that starts to seem farcical, but this hyperbolic aspect by no means ruined it for me. I congratulated myself afterwards on identifying the culprit early on, but Christie's repeated use of bait and switch meant that you constantly questioned the conclusions you drew and changed your mind. I thought I knew who it was, but not how it was, and kept looking for possible solutions

It's very cleverly done, as a story it's quite a hard thing to pull off, but pull it off she does, the epilogue explaining how it was done is really necessary.

I can't say that I'll be rushing out and buying the entire chronicles of Hercule Poirot or anything, I think I'll be sticking to my usual genres, but I'm not sorry I read it and have already passed it on to a friend.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Price: £4.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Another day, another bleak novel, 13 Oct. 2013
For a brief period when he was in kindergarten Oscar was a hit with the ladies, but that quickly died away, until he grew up to be a fat, lonely, socially outcast virgin with dreams of being Tolkien.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao examines Oscar's life from four angles, his own story, that of his sister, that of her ex boyfriend (his college roommate) and the background of his mother and how she came to the USA from the Dominican Republic.

I have never read any novel related to the Dominican Republic before so it was original and refreshing to me from that angle. On the whole it was well written but it seemed to me that the parts that were best written were the ones that were not about Oscar. His room-mate's sense of guilt, frustration and responsibility, his mother's life as the orphaned daughter in Santo Domingo, and his sisters retreat there during her adolescence were all far more interesting to me than that of Oscar, the geeky outcast whose story feels like a well worn one, covered in a variety of storytelling.

Particularly in the stories of Oscar and his mother, I felt a sense of compassion fatigue, it seems to me that of late what it takes for a work of literature to be considered worthy of note is for the protagonists lives to be as unrelenting bleak and dissatisfactory as possible.

In addition, I didn't really particularly like any of the main characters, not even Oscar himself, perhaps actually, especially not Oscar. I found the motivations for his sisters ex boyfriends behaviour later on in the novel lacking in credibility and I also found the curse angle similarly lacking.

It is a good novel but it is not without faults, there is a tendency to use Spanish without giving the reader a translation, which frustrates and ultimately it was not all that memorable to me.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Price: £5.22

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fundamentally flawed & obvious, yet compelling, 13 Oct. 2013
I picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the train station because I needed something for the journey, and at slightly over 200 pages, had half read it in a couple of hours.

Our protagonist is Changez, and in the opening sentences of the novel he offers his assistance as a local to an American tourist in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, when they sit down to dinner in a restaurant, Changez begins to fill in this American on his back story.

At 18 Changez left Pakistan to become a student at the prestigious Princeton upon graduation he gets a job at an elite firm where he is the most successful junior and from there embarks on a relationship with a white American girl. He has wholeheartedly embraced the American Dream, so why does it feel so good when he sees the Twin Towers fall?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a great idea, and by no means an unlikeable read, however, so much of its construct feels artificial. For a start, its very title practically hands you the plot, and it's not hard to figure out quite early on that his American companion is more than what he seems, and more than that, what he actually is. What feels most artificial is the dialogue itself, a one sided affair that drags on into the night, it's hard to imagine that it would actually take place. I also saw the ending a mile off. The novel seeks to make a point, but in the end it's not a very complex or nuanced one.

The blurb on the back of the book says the woman he loves betrays him. But she doesn't. At all. Fundamentally she is mentally ill, she genuinely loves Changez, but is convinced she still loves another man who is gone and her problems thwart her. I think she can be exonerated from any kind of deliberate "betrayal".

Despite these complaints I did actually enjoy this book so it's odd that this review is so critical, I think its because it's heart and purpose are in the right place but its execution is fundamentally flawed and lacking in subtlety

Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Price: £3.99

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Misery. Well written misery, but misery nonetheless., 28 Aug. 2013
Stoner, by John Williams published in 1965 has been experiencing something of a renaissance in 2013, finding itself suddenly acclaimed as a forgotten modern classic and rocketing up best seller lists all over the place. It was picked for one of my book clubs.

Stoner is the story of an ordinary man who lives an unfulfilled life, his narrow existence on a farm leads him unexpectedly to university where he discovers English Literature and enters teaching.

What one would expect then here is the uplifting story about the transformative power of literature in one man's life, but Stoner is very much not that book.

William Stoner is a nice man and a good man, yet his life though he escaped the farm remains narrow, unhappy, disappointing and unfulfilled, and academia proves his only refuge.

There are some nice moments of action, his dispute with fellow academic Hollis Lomax for example and the early stages of his relationship with Edith and his relationship with Katherine.

The most interesting and heartbreaking character is Grace Stoner, William's unhappy daughter with whom his special connection is deliberately sabotaged. There is a wonderfully written paragraph towards the end about her failure to blossom.

I found myself repeatedly furious with Stoner's apparent inertia and inability to turn his life around. The novel is inherently sad in fact I would go as far as to call it depressing. As a reading experience I would probably compare it to is Bernard Malamud's The Assistant. Like The Assistant I didn't so much enjoy it as appreciate it on an intellectual level.

It's a tale which examines the ordinary man and the ordinary, slightly unrewarding life. I found it hard to understand the idea espoused at the start : that he was forgotten shortly after dying by all who knew him; given that his rivalry with Lomax achieved near mythic status at the university.

Many things have been said about Stoner of late that it is a great book, that it is almost perfect that is a work of art, and perhaps it is all those things, but it's very sad and it made me sad and therefore I didn't like it very much. It made me miserable.

A Room of One's Own
A Room of One's Own
Price: £0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a read, 17 Aug. 2013
I did a module on Virginia Woolf at university. I read Jacob's Room, Orlando, To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and Between The Acts, I also read a lot of general remarks by her, but I did not read A Room Of One's Own. I actually got a first in the essay I wrote on Woolf, a fact that still baffles me to this day, as I generally found no particular affinity for her as an author.

I saw A Room Of One's Own up for grabs in the library, and as it's rather slight, thought : Why Not?

It's an extended essay over several chapters, and interesting from a number of perspectives. It is borne of a much shorter address that Woolf was asked to give to Oxbridge on Women And Fiction, and generally is a feminist perspective on the historical progress of women as authors. Ironically, it's now a historical piece in itself, and one far detached from the realities of today's female writers.

Woolf, from a wealthy, well connected background argues that to succeed as a female writer one needs an independent means, (Woolf rather quaintly recommends £500 a year) and a room of one's own to write in.

She talks about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, how in Austen's case writing, prior to her fame, was almost a dirty secret, how Charlotte's frustrations at the limitations of her sex can be seen in Jane Eyre almost to its detraction as a work of fiction. (I've always thought Jane Eyre over-rated)

The male reaction to female writing and how it was seen as an intellectual threat is a diverting topic and the sexism of even Woolf's own era extraordinary.

Perhaps the most interesting of all her reflections is on that of "Shakespeare's Sister" - a fictional entity who if she had wished to pursue the same career as her brother would have been laughed at and degraded, and would have mostly died a victim of sexual exploitation on a roadside near Elephant and Castle. Bleak as this is, I believe Woolf is correct nonetheless.

Where 'A Room Of One's Own' gave me most cause to reflect was in the discussion of women pre-Bronte and pre-Austen who were routinely silenced and had no creative outlet and were expected to have no opinion. It made me think that women today with literary ambitions should pursue them to the fullest, because we are lucky to live in far more enlightened times.

Woolf slightly misses the mark towards the end with the idea that even so, women's writing would remain the province of the upper class, working class women having no time for such pursuits with their poverty and life of drudgery. Snobbish though this may sound to our ears, Woolf even though she was a progressive simply could not conceive of two things : the world women know in 2013 and the literary world of 2013, a world were gender, sexuality and every social class is represented without any notion that this is something remarkable. If at times we grow complacent with the ways of the modern world we should remember just how huge a social and cultural transformation occurred throughout 20th Century Britain and just how fortunate, women particularly, are as a result.

One wonders what on earth Virginia Woolf would have made of it

The Lion Sleeps Tonight
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Price: £6.64

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A number of fascinating articles building a picture of new South Africa, 17 Aug. 2013
My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan is the single best autobiography I've ever read. It's stunning. I had never seen any further work by Rian Malan for sale until I spotted The Lion Sleeps Tonight in Waterstones about a month ago. I couldn't afford to buy it at that moment, and as luck would have it, saw it in my library two days ago.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight is a collection of essays and articles that Malan has written for various publications including The Spectator since My Traitor's Heart came out 23 years ago.

These articles cover a range of topics from the titular story which is a reference to the famous song by The Tokens but was actually written by a South African Zulu who received no recompense, to articles about Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the Miss World Competition, the film Invictus, and Winnie Mandela.

By far the most fascinating of these are two articles written about the problem of AIDS in Africa. Malan, not a fan of Thabo Mbeki, is offered a chance to mock his AIDS denying stance by the magazine Rolling Stone, and jumps on it, but as he engages in his research he discovers that the globally accepted AIDS statistics and the actual picture do not match up.

Malan has always been an interesting character, owing to his descendancy from one of the main architects of Apartheid - Daniel Malan. At times he is a pessimist, prophesising a forthcoming ethnic cleansing in South Africa and at times he seems overtly racist referring affirmatively in one instance to Ian Smith's remarks about the future of Rhodesia. Malan's openly acknowledged and honest struggle against the racist indoctrination of his past is one of the things which makes his voice such a unique one to hear.

In spite of these issues, his perspectives from the "other side of the colour divide" are consistently fascinating as is the picture he builds of the modern post-Apartheid, struggling and confused, yet weathering it out nation.

I have always enjoyed anything about Africa and this collection is well worth a read.

Broken Homes (PC Peter Grant Book Book 4)
Broken Homes (PC Peter Grant Book Book 4)
Price: £4.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Return To Form For The Folly, 11 Aug. 2013
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Broken Homes is the 4th in Ben Aaronovitch's Folly Series, following PC Peter Grant, a young copper who at the beginning of the series, met a ghost and suddenly found himself a member of the Metropolitan Police's magic division.

The novel carries on the storylines from previous books, so I won't delve too far, for there would be spoilers. This time the mystery revolves around a housing estate called Skygarden.

It continues to expand the magical universe it is set in as Peter, Lesley, and Nightingale continue to hunt the Faceless Man, and the Little Crocodile society, it also brings back the always good value Rivers sisters, Fairy Zach, and others we met in the previous novels which is nice.

I also liked how we are given more detail about how Peter is slowly learning and studying his magical craft, necessary in the development of a clumsy apprentice.

There is good characterization of newly introduced surrounding players who pop off the page easily with pithy but greatly visual description.

I really enjoyed this one, having had some issues with both books two and three, I loved a certain passage which made a remark about schizophrenia, applicable to mental illness in general.

I also really loved the twist, which I never saw coming at all.

I knew if I stuck with this story it would pay off if I ignored the bits about the first two sequels I found a bit shaky, and kept up with it. I think Broken Homes is a return to form for this saga, but obviously if you've not read it you do have to start with Rivers Of London.

I'd absolutely love to see this optioned as a TV series, its sense of Britishness would work more on the small screen than the large.

Memories Of My Melancholy Whores
Memories Of My Melancholy Whores

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very unusual love story, 11 Aug. 2013
I came across Memories Of My Melancholy Whores in the library and given that it is relatively slight, just over 100 pages thought I'd give this a crack at finally losing my Marquez virginity.

The novel concerns an elderly journalist, unnamed throughout the novel who has only ever had sex with whores. On his 90th birthday he decides that what he most wants, as a gift to himself, is to deflower an adolescent virgin.

At the beginning of this novel, I thought I was about to read an extremely distasteful tale of a dirty old man, engaging in a vile abuse that was tantamount to rape. I was fully prepared to throw the book aside in disgust.

But then, when he meets his again unnamed whore, whom he christens Delgadina, she has taken valerian out of fear, and has fallen into a deep sleep, and the two do not have intercourse.

What follows as a result of this failure to fulfill his plans turns into a love story of incredibly unusual parameters and is on occasion very touching and fable-like.

I don't think I've read a story like this before, and I really admired and enjoyed it.

Odd and unique, I think I would recommend this to people who enjoy reading stories that are a bit different from the norm and the mainstream.

I hope that in the rest of this year, I can finally read one of his larger novels
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