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J: A Novel
J: A Novel
by Howard Jacobson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A brave failure, 11 Sep 2014
This review is from: J: A Novel (Hardcover)
I admire it when a writer moves out of his comfort zone, as Jacobson does here, but it does entail some risks, and (disagreeing here with the Booker judges) I feel J is not entirely successful. Jacobson has made his name as a comic novelist, and it's his frequently outrageous humour that I most relish. This humour depends for its effect on a convincing portrayal of certain aspects of society--middle-class intelligentsia, and Jewish families. Jacobson himself has promoted the claims of the comic novel, claiming (quite rightly, in my opinion) that comedy and seriousness are not necessarily in opposition. In choosing to present a post-apocalyptic dystopia, Jacobson has had to sacrifice some of his major strengths .

Is it worth it? On balance, yes: Jacobson can never fail to be intelligent, and his main interests (male/female relationships, and the nature of Jewishness) are explored once again, the latter particularly interestingly. But I feel the book groans under the weight of its set-up 'WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED', a scenario I just don't buy. (And, yes, I know people didn't believe the Holocaust could happen, but it's job of the fiction writer to convince the reader of his fiction.) I'm not a great lover of dystopian fiction, though, so maybe others will like it better than I do. For me, it's a brave attempt, but not really a success--except at the very end, which I find both thought-provoking and moving.


The Emperor Waltz
The Emperor Waltz
by Philip Hensher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

5.0 out of 5 stars Never a dull moment, 11 Sep 2014
This review is from: The Emperor Waltz (Hardcover)
I dithered between five and four stars, but in the end felt that the sheer pleasure and sustained interest the book had given me justifies five. The key point of controversy is clearly the piecemeal structure--as another reviewer has written, it's effectively an assembly of two novellas (actually I'd say two short novels), two short stories, and an account of a personal experience. The question, of course, is does this work. On balance, I'd say yes. The Bauhaus and gay bookshop sections are both compelling, and the kids taking poppers and watching porn while the parents enjoy a dinner party downstairs is a brilliant social comedy. Not so sure about the early Christian martyrs, or the author in hospital--but this is always a potential problem with multiple plots. I like the way Hensher doesn't push the connections between the narratives, leaving the reader to do the work. This enables us to consider the ambiguities and ironies of the quest for freedom of belief and action--in particular how the martyrs of one period (eg the Christians) become the implicit persecutors in another. And, of course, it gives the novel huge variety--not a single moment is boring.

But as always with Hensher, the real virtues of the novel are old-fashioned ones: richness of characterisation, a strong sense of period, and just an all-round brio--which I suppose is embodied in the title, suggesting a constant, swirling movement. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone who likes literary fiction disliking it,


He Wants
He Wants
by Alison Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A unique voice, 11 Sep 2014
This review is from: He Wants (Paperback)
Alison Moore has a unique voice, perhaps a little like Muriel Spark, but with far more humanity. She clearly has a penchant for lonely, apparently clueless male protagonists. This makes her novels sound depressing, and much as I liked 'The Lighthouse' it was perhaps open to this charge. 'He Wants' (the title brilliantly encapsulating the unfulfilled, even unrecognised, desires of the central character) seems richer and more balanced. Simply and straightforwardly written, it employs time-shifts to give a remarkably three-dimensional picture of a sad but not worthless life. We're presented with a world both totally ordinary and completely mysterious: in other words, the world we inhabit!
,

A quiet book like this will never be a best-seller, but if you like something a little out of the ordinary, that is easy to read but emotionally and intellectually challenging, this could be the book for you.


The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch
Price: £3.32

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why the controversy?, 14 Aug 2014
This review is from: The Goldfinch (Kindle Edition)
Coming a bit late to the party here, I read the novel aware of most of the views expressed, and the deep divisions between reviewers--the majority hailing it as a masterpiece, while a few dissenters slam it. Far be it from me to challenge the professionals, but I think the qualities and faults are pretty clear. No-one surely can deny the charm of Tartt's style, or her ability to set up an intriguing situation (the qualities which made 'The Secret History' so popular). But the problem with an intriguing set-up is that it tends to promise more than it can deliver-- I felt this even with 'The Secret History', which I loved. Here, the last 100 pages are a bit of a mess (maybe that's going slightly too far-- let's say complex and convoluted without enough depth to balance them). But in terms of a reader's pleasure there are whole stretches that are outstanding--for me, particularly the Las Vegas section. Since my taste is always for a novel that tries to do too much rather than too little, I can't help warming even to the excesses. Yes, editors could have taken the scissors to it--but I think they would have taken its heart away--its sense of the richness and complexity of
life.


Expo 58
Expo 58
Price: £4.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Not just lightweight fun, 14 Aug 2014
This review is from: Expo 58 (Kindle Edition)
It seems strange to call Coe an under-rated writer, but I think he is. Because of the ease and accessibility of his writing, and his humour, he seems to be viewed as lightweight. I notice even positive reviewers emphasise the retro delights of the story--and, yes, I take pleasure in the description of a world I dimly remember. But it's a work of real thematic depth and richness, full of social, political and moral themes, built on a plot that is both coherent and pleasingly twisty. Thomas Foley is an innocent abroad--at first sight a naive bumbler out of Evelyn Waugh or Tom Sharpe- and yet (without giving too much away) is not perhaps quite as innocent as he first seems--nor as bumbling. A metaphor for Britain, perhaps? (Interesting also that he represents a generation not often considered--the pre baby-boomers-- a truly transitional figure)

Plot, humour, thematic depth. What more do you want?


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Price: £3.08

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not worthless, but not worth the acclaim, 14 Aug 2014
I can't for the life of me understand how this book achieved either the Booker long-list or the huge critical acclaim. It's OK: written in a lively, accessible style, and raising some interesting, though hardly original, issues about the differences and similarities between animals and humans. But the characterisation is blurred--we never get a clear sense of the narrator's parents, who are clearly key agents in the action, which is a pretty serious fault in a novel that is essentially built around the 'they f*** you up' theme.

That said, I read it quickly and with some pleasure-- but partly in the expectation that it would deliver more than it ultimately did. Perhaps the famous, much-touted 'twist' raised expectations too high. It was hardly surprising--and actually I think the novel might have been better if the writer had put her cards on the table at the start.


The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.27

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More than just a rant, 23 May 2014
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Paperback)
I approached this with some trepidation, since in the reviews there had been so much emphasis on the anger of the narrator--an angry woman. This, let's face it, is not immediately going to appeal to a male reader. In fact, though, I felt the narrator's anger had a universal quality--it spoke to and for everyone who has felt that life has passed them by through no fault of their own, who have been victims of their own compliant nature: no doubt more women feel this than men, but it's not a feeling confined to one gender.

So what have is a set of well-realised relationships, a convincing social milieu, and a page-turning plot. We are told at the outset that there will be a betrayal: a risky narrative strategy--it keeps us reading, but there's the risk of building up to something that disappoints. I think Messud just about pulls it off, as the 'reveal' is plausible, and carries symbolic as well as emotional force. Not sure I quite believe in the friend/ antagonist, but what do I know about this sort of world? Less than Messud, I'm sure...


The Slap
The Slap
by Christos Tsiolkas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Why all the fuss?, 23 May 2014
This review is from: The Slap (Paperback)
Having somehow managed to be virtually oblivious to the hype (positive and negative) surrounding this, I plucked it from the library shelves recently and what did I find?-- an intelligent, mildly thought-provoking picture of Melbourne society. Some of the characters are nice, many less so, but, hey, that's life for you. As some of the critics have pointed out, it verges on soap opera--but, like a soap, it retains one's interest because the characters are strongly-drawn and going through intense experiences.

I'm astonished that anyone is shocked by the language--it would seem pretty standard for London, and I'd be surprised if people swear less in Melbourne. The sex--yes, that is a bit dodgy: Tsiolkas does seem to have some fairly unreconstructed attitudes--don't any of the men have average erections rather than massive ones? But not a bad read, and gets a real sense of the messiness of our emotional lives.


The Lighthouse (SALT MODERN FICTION)
The Lighthouse (SALT MODERN FICTION)
by Alison Moore
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, but ..., 23 May 2014
Moore has a hypnotic style based upon spare, precise description and the patterned repetition of images--in particular, the lighthouse itself. The bleak, ominous plot, the cool distance she maintains from her characters (not the same as lack of sympathy, though if you're the sort of reader who needs to 'like' the characters, this is not for you, remind me of Muriel Spark--also the brevity

What it all 'means', I don't know, which is why I don't give it five stars. Something about human isolation, and the unknowability of others, or the way we're trapped by the past, perhaps. But this makes it seem a more conventional novel than it is. I'm excited to see what Moore will do next, as this is pretty special, and amazingly confident and sophisticated for a first novel.


The Circle
The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes subtlety isn't required, 23 May 2014
This review is from: The Circle (Paperback)
This is the most gripping book I've read so far this year. I've seen a number of reviews saying the message is obvious and the characterisation thin: well, I wonder what they'd have said about '1984'. This is unashamedly a book with moral and political purpose--a satire and warning about the spread of social media, and our willing surrender of privacy. It's funny (particularly in the first half), alarming, fluently-written and deftly-plotted. We're not talking Henry James here! If you want to reach a wide audience, you have to use some of the conventions of genre fiction, and Eggers beats most popular writers at their own game--wipes the floor with them, in fact. And he's writing about something really important--as evidenced by the fact that this very moment I'm participating in exactly the sort of structure he is satirizing!


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