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Noble House: The Fifth Novel of the Asian Saga
Noble House: The Fifth Novel of the Asian Saga
by James Clavell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Noble house's last act, 5 Jun. 2016
Noble House is the fifth novel in James Clavell’s Asia saga and the third to deal with the Hong Kong based trading conglomerate the noble house. If you have not read the preceding novels Tai Pan and Gai Jin, you need to stop reading this review here, and nor should you begin with Noble House. The setting is 1963 Hong Kong, and the book pits for a final time the Struan family Tai Pan against his enemies, this time no more against the vanquished Brocks, but their indirect heirs, the Gornts. But as is usual with Clavell, there are multiple plots bringing in MI6, the CIA, the KGB, and Maoist China in a parallel spy story, plus the local bandits and their various smuggling schemes, all tied together in one giant interwoven web. There are also, of course, various romantic interests, which also interact with the book’s main thrust. The Noble House, meanwhile, is once again overextended, and it is attempting to bring in a big-bucks American partner into the business. But that partner turns out to be as dangerous a predator as Struan’s traditional and more open enemies. Kidnappings, coastal shoot-outs, mud slides, triple spying schemes, high-stakes stock-exchange takeovers, this has it all. In another interesting twist, moreover, Calvell brings in Peter Marlowe, the hero of King Rat, who is really the author himself. Marlowe does not play a central role, but having him there brings added dimension to the plot as well as an odd, nostalgic gloss to what is the noble house’s final firework.


The Green Road: Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2016
The Green Road: Shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2016
by Anne Enright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Road to where?, 5 Jun. 2016
The Green Road tells the story of an Irish family, especially the children of the ageing Rosaleen Madigan. Her four children, whose story is picked up, in turn, from their native County Clare county to New York, Dublin, Mali, and elsewhere, have led lives that took them well beyond their childhood expectations, for better or worse. Dan, who initially fancied himself a priest’s vocation, has come out of the closet, partnered with a man, and become an art dealer. Hanna has become an actress, while Emmet does work in poor countries for an NGO, and Constance has made it by staying in rural Ireland, in Limerick. In the book’s second part, they all return home for fraught Christmas festivities with their mother, who finds it hard to adapt to their different fates. The Green Road is reasonably well written. It is never boring, though the ending tends to fizzle out. As a picture of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Ireland in the last generation, it is interesting. But nor is it that gripping or penetrating. This got one of the highest literary prizes available. Reading it, I found myself wondering where literature had gone, in the sense of something challenging but ultimately enriching. Where are the modern Joyce, Virginia Wolf? Not on the green road, apparently.


Any Human Heart
Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

5.0 out of 5 stars The new new confessions, 18 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Any Human Heart (Paperback)
Boyd’s Any Human Heart bears a lot of resemblance to his masterpiece The New Confessions, and that is a good thing. Both stretch from before WWI into the late twentieth century. Both have a Brit with an international destiny for hero. Both include a war stint, though here it is WWII, not WWI. But, especially, both are told in the first person by very similar characters. Logan Mountstuart, this book’s main protagonist, is a writer whereas John James Todd from the New Confessions is a cinematographer, but both share that personality that is a mix of ironic British detachment and a carefree optimism. Both characters are talented artists, but they lack the genius or determination to push their gifts to truly great heights. And both exhibit that odd mixture of passion and pusillanimity in their love lives. Perhaps they are a type of proto-Boyd, or an anti-Boyd, a figure the writer clearly feels strongly about.

Any Human Heart is told in the form of a diary, with a few gaps filled in by an outside narrator. It begins effectively with Logan’s boarding-school years, takes him to Oxford, London, Paris and southern France, civil-war Spain, New York, and many other places besides. Writer, journalist, spy, and even red brigade co-conspirator, Logan is definitely a roamer, offering the reader a string of picaresque and highly entertaining adventures. He also happens to rub shoulders with many of the great and good, from Hemingway to Picasso to the Prince of Wales upon his abdication, and the novel offers many an intriguing vignette, placing the reader at eye level with these real-life yet mythical personages. Logan’s arcing trajectory through the century is never boring, and it reads so convincingly I needed to remind myself that he is a fictional person once in a while. Any Human Heart is Boyd at his best, witty, always absorbing and, sadly, quickly read. That it is so much like The New Confessions is not a drawback: I only wish there were a third Boyd novel like it.


Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle Book 4 (Knausgaard)
Dancing in the Dark: My Struggle Book 4 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 6 Mar. 2016
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.’ This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

Dancing in the Dark is the fourth of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught relationships, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

Dancing in the Dark deals with Knausgaard’s experience in northern Norway where, aged 18 and completely inexperienced, he spent a year teaching primary school pupils. The claustrophobic atmosphere of both school and town, where everyone is a fisherman, doors are perpetually open, and everybody knows what everybody else is up to, is described with wit and grit. As usual Knausgaard appears to hold back nothing about himself, not even his drunken irresponsibility, attraction to underage girls, or problems with sexual performance. As in the other books, his writing proceeds by open and rarely-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first.

This volume is perhaps more conventional that the first two, however, in that it is more tightly framed chronologically, and that it smacks of a more typical small-town tale. In this, it resembles Boyhood Island more than the other two books in the series. While is it enjoyable and interesting, taking its reader to an utterly unknown and strange destination, I expected Knausgaard to continue the tale from A Man In Love, and I felt this volume was a little less original than the first instalments. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


Disclaimer
Disclaimer
by Renée Knight
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Odd and intriguing, 6 Mar. 2016
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This review is from: Disclaimer (Paperback)
Disclaimer is not quite a thriller though it looks and feels like one for much of its plot. Catherine, living a conventional London life, married with one child and a successful documentary producer, opens a novel someday to find that it describes her own experience twenty years before on a Spanish holiday. The book’s appearance on her bedside table is not a coincidence, and piece by piece the puzzle sets out to reveal a past, life-changing experience she had long kept secret. The plot of this uninvited volume ends with her ‘accidental’ death, moreover, and its appearance is as dark and threatening as it is odd.

Disclaimer is well structured and leads its reader on at just the right pace, with convincing characters, the right amount of ambiguity, and unabated tension and suspense. Perhaps my only criticism is that the main protagonist looks a little too much like she lacks fight – though why that is eventually becomes clear – and the villain isn’t quite as scary as he could be. But this is not quite a thriller, even if it packs good suspense – to explain what I mean would be to reveal too much of the plot. Whatever weaknesses it may have, moreover, are redeemed by the ending, which is excellent.


Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (Knausgaard)
Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 6 Mar. 2016
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.’ This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

Boyhood Island is the third of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught relationships, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

Boyhood Island returns to Knausgaard’s childhood, this time his earlier years spent on the island of Tromoya (somewhere in southern Norway). Inevitably this overlaps with the first volume, A Death in the Family, especially because much of it is about the author’s fraught relationship with his violent, authoritarian, and unpredictable father. Again, Knausgaard makes the point that children’s everyday reality is unfiltered and therefore often vested with greater power and meaning. The adult sees things through the prisms of experience and self-observation, and to return to one’s childhood is to attempt to recapture its more pungent actuality, to reconnect with life itself.

As in the other books, Knausgaard’s writing proceeds by open and rarely-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. This volume is perhaps more conventional that the other two in that it is more tightly framed chronologically, though, and that it smacks of a typical coming of age story. The book touches on the child’s school experiences, his friendships, first loves, and difficulty in relating to his parents. It is a reminder that children live in their own universe, aware but dimly of the adult’s world and interested foremost in other children and children’s things (like a dog to other dogs and doggy things, writes Knausgaard). Apparently there are more books to come, but I expected Knausgaard to continue the tale from A Man In Love, and I felt this volume was a little less original than the first two. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2 (Knausgaard)
A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 27 Jan. 2016
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.' This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

A Man in Love is the second of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught relationships, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

A Man in Love zooms in on the author’s relationship with his second wife, the Swede Linda. At first dazzled by Linda and entirely fulfilled, Knausgaard finds that the magic wears off as he gets used to married life and young children put pressure on his couple. Debates about the time and dedication each must invest in child rearing takes the place of unquestioning mutual devotion. And once again, Knausgaard labours to recover the sense of meaning he thought he had found in his everyday life.

Much else happens, ranging from the semi-tragic to the entirely comical. Knausgaard’s writing, indeed, proceeds by open and never-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. His narration has a rambling, Russian-doll structure that creates the impression of a table-corner or pub-counter confession, and gives it the aura of a friend’s confidence. The book is occasionally long-winded, but it is never boring nor heavy-going. Perhaps my only criticism of this second volume is that actually Linda does not come across as very likeable. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


The Lowland
The Lowland
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Irregular, 22 Jan. 2016
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This review is from: The Lowland (Paperback)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland begins with an intriguing storyline, revolving around the Marxist-inspired Naxalite rebellion in 1960s Bengal, where students chose to join by violent means the cause of desperately poor peasants in that region of India. Subhash and Udayan, the sons of a Calcutta civil servant, are very close to one another. Udayan, though, is attracted to the Naxalite movement while Subhash chooses to go complete his studies in the USA. This is where the plot gets somewhat sidetracked. I don’t want to reveal too much, but Subhash ends up marrying Udayan’s girl and raising his child. The Naxalite plotline gets more or less dropped, and the story ends up dealing with the difficulties of integration and the estrangement of diaspora Indians. This is familiar territory for Lahiri, and I guess this is what she likes to write about. But the novel, which then moves down another generation again, ends up losing a common thread. Lahiri writes well, of course, but this is not up to, say, The Namesake, and the feeling is that she has written this story before. Nor does the tone vary very much. It is constantly wistful and lightly sad, with the result that the book often fails to engage the reader. Pursing the Naxalite storyline, one can’t help thinking, would have been more fruitful, more filled with potential tension and with strong, emotional choices for the characters. The Lowland is readable throughout, but it ends up feeling as something of a letdown.


The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard Historical Studies)
The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard Historical Studies)
by Rebecca L Spang
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Rich fare, 29 Dec. 2015
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Spang’s The Invention of the Restaurant traces the origins of the restaurant, in France, as a place of fine dining. There were plenty of places where one could eat outside home in the eighteenth century, when the story begins, but they were inns or taverns or cafés, where one went to drink and perhaps eat a set meal, or they were traiteurs, establishments that provided home cooking to a group of guests sitting around a table at set times. Spang’s question is how the restaurant was born as establishments where one could order food from a written menu at a private table and a time of one’s choosing. In passing, she debunks the myth that they were born during the French revolution, when the unemployed chefs of exiled aristocrats started their own businesses (a myth that some of her reviewers, who obviously haven’t read the book, are happy to repeat – e.g. The New Yorker). She also asks interesting questions about sociability and privacy, qualifying the prevailing model about the rise of a ‘public sphere’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in that the restaurant was at once open to the public and a place where one sought and could find privacy. Nor was it, like the café, a forum for sharing political and other ideas.

The Invention of the Restaurant explains that the first restaurants were providers of health food, especially in soup form, hence the name 'restaurant’, from the verb 'to restore’, namely restore one’s health. The attraction was thus born of ancien régime sensibility and the Rousseau-ist craze for natural things. Restaurants were a type of health spa, and it is only progressively that they began to expand their menus. But the French restaurant came into its own in the hedonistic period that arrived after the revolutionary terror and with the first empire. Preoccupations about health were dropped, and the restaurant became a place of enjoyment as well as a social marker, even if it performed that second role ambiguously in that it was nevertheless democratic in being open to all. Spang’s story expands into the mid-nineteenth century, finally, when the restaurant, still uniquely French, began to resemble its modern equivalent, with fancy menus and famous names.

This is academic cultural history, and it not always as entertaining as it sounds or does not always make for easy reading. Some sources sound as though they might perhaps be over-glossed, and the writing can be cryptic. To provide a sample: 'The collapse of the division between cook and diner, the crossing to the threshold between kitchen and dining room, when it occurred, could easily precipitate the abolition of the line between the eater and the eaten. Despite its many advances and improvements, the art of cookery needed to remain in the realm of private, semi-alchemical, Arcanum’ (page 156). This is nevertheless a worthy monograph on an important historical topic. Its research is broadly based, moreover, and Sprang makes an interesting and uniquely valuable contribution to her subject.


A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard)
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's struggle, 15 Dec. 2015
‘The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.’ This, in a nutshell, is what the My Struggle cycle of four books is about, though at 3,000 plus pages altogether, this lends itself less than any other work to any nutshell characterisation.

A Death in the Family is the first of four volumes which, while they can be read entirely independently, purport together to tell the story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own life. Ostensibly autobiographical, the books appear to have been fictionalised in areas, or at least in the detail, though in the main it checks out. But the point is that Knausgaard’s life is no different from that of any average denizen of the modern, developed world, save perhaps that a writer is free from some of the professional constraints most people find themselves labouring under. His life is meant as an ordinary life, with a more or less fraught child-parent relationship and childhood, the search for professional success and meaning, friends, marriage, divorce, and so on. His struggle is everyone’s struggle.

The point, then, is to find meaning in ordinary life, any human life. A Death in the Family, which deals mostly with Knausgaard’s childhood, specifically makes the point that for children every small experience is intense, of tremendous novelty and import. A child’s reality remains unfiltered and therefore everything in it is vested with great meaning. But the adult sees things through the prisms of experience, judgement, and self-observation. For him or her, it becomes that much more difficult to relate tangibly to the everyday. For Knausgaard, this becomes clear when his father dies, and he is forced to come to terms with entire aspects of his youth. The death forces him to assume his own adulthood – his father dies of drunkenness, having damaged the lives of several of his closest kin in the process, and Karl Ove cleans up after him – but at the same time his grief is that of a child for a however ambivalent role model.

Meanwhile, of course, much else happens, ranging from the semi-tragic to the entirely comical. Knausgaard’s writing, indeed, proceeds by open and never-closed parenthesis, one subject or anecdote recalling another one, and so forth without always closing the first. His narration has a rambling, Russian-doll structure that creates the impression of a table-corner or pub-counter confession, and gives it the aura of a friend’s confidence. The book is occasionally long-winded, but it is never boring nor heavy-going. It is no coincidence, finally that the cycle title, My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp, is the same as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Obfuscation, misdirection: these are also part and parcel of this dense, rich, and fascinating work.


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