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The Dharma Bums (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Dharma Bums (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Jack Kerouac
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Buddha Boy De Bum Bum, 13 Feb. 2017
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"Are we fallen angels who didn't want to believe that nothing is nothing and so we were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?"

"The Dharma Bums" is a naked disquisition on all those cool existential questions. Quite Buddhist, of course, in its flavour, and not without moments of profundity. It seems to divide opinion though. Perhaps it's a bit naive, self-indulgent - pretentious in places. A sort of youthful exuberance pervades; something of the excitable teenager at times. (Though Ray is in his early thirties.) And sticklers will quibble, of course, over the veracity and accuracy of the Buddhist theory and experience...

Still, there's a genuine, urgent, poetic imperative going on - a real lust for life and self-exploration that comes from the heart. It's hard to fault the source of this outpouring, however occasionally misjudged the results. Quite often though, whilst forming these snooty opinions, a line will trip you over with its acuity.

"Standing on my head before bedtime on that rock roof of the moonlight I could indeed see that the earth was truly upside-down and a man a weird vain beetle full of strange ideas walking around upside-down and boasting."


Hot Milk
Hot Milk
by Deborah Levy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nectar, 30 Jan. 2017
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This review is from: Hot Milk (Hardcover)
It is pretty enigmatic, as one reviewer has suggested. But it's also highly readable. Which is quite a feat to pull off. You may feel slightly baffled at times as to where it's all going, but, meanwhile, you can just luxuriate in the delightful prose and bide your time.

I found Sophie, the first person protagonist, an engaging, thoughtful character - quirky too. The novel offers plenty of her poetic, personal observations that really shape and define her as an authentic individual. It's a beguiling voice in my opinion.

There's an odd, subtly dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship underpinning the narrative. Which is okay, only I found the mother hard to fully imagine and believe. She's too sketchily drawn for such a curious character, but then she's a confounding presence in Sophie's life too - and it is Sophie's perspective we're getting, after all.

I could easily read another Levy novel. This one's a great achievement.


The Rookie: An Odyssey through Chess (and Life)
The Rookie: An Odyssey through Chess (and Life)
Price: £6.02

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Knight On The Rim, 22 Jan. 2017
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Theodore Odorno's earlier review here pretty much sums up my own impressions. The book is certainly over-long and the quality of writing is surprisingly average for a Guardian journalist.

These tales of Stephen Moss's tournament experiences are repetitive and un-insightful. The game descriptions alone are too vague: "started well then lost" is pretty much the standard pattern. He then usually goes on to make some tired generalisations about chess players and the game itself.

It's strange that he never actually evidences any attempt to take the advice that's repeatedly being offered him: study some chess! It would at least have broken up the monotony to hear of how he channeled his energies into practice and what strategies worked for him.

The fact is Moss doesn't actually improve at all. Or barely. So I'm not sure what the book is attempting. A circular, self-indulgent memoir of a time-wasting hobby? As Theodore Adorno points out, the problem with this approach is that Moss simply isn't interesting enough. Lack of biographical colour doesn't help.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 7, 2017 7:43 AM BST


Birchwood
Birchwood
by John Banville
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Daffy Toffs, 16 Jan. 2017
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This review is from: Birchwood (Paperback)
Banville's prose is consistently excellent: strong imagery, great clarity - poetic. It's a pleasure to read the sentences. But, for me, as with his "The Untouchable", and unlike Granny Godkin, the story itself never ignited. The tale of eccentric, aristocratic decline amidst a disintegrating mansion house might have been better handled by a Shirley Jackson or Barbara Comyns I suspect.

There's just something a little bit snooty and detached about Banville's style in my opinion, and his focus never quite seems to the purpose. I'm sure other readers will regard the meandering whimsy charming - and I'm not saying there aren't things to admire.


Pulp: A Novel
Pulp: A Novel
by Charles Bukowski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Blast, 9 Jan. 2017
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This review is from: Pulp: A Novel (Paperback)
This ones's my favourite Bukowski novel - above Post Office and Factotum even. It's got that easy, tough talking fluidity, edgy and world-weary, what you'd expect. Only this one's got self-deprecating humour too, plus surreal red herrings/sparrows etc... Let's face it, if you could cast a modern day noir gumshoe who else would you have?

And if you listen real close with your ear to the gutter, you can make out a deep rumbling of profundities. That or a passing subway train.


Nocturnal Animals: Film tie-in originally published as Tony and Susan
Nocturnal Animals: Film tie-in originally published as Tony and Susan
by Austin Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dodgy Execution, 4 Jan. 2017
One of those trendy metafictions that juxtaposes a bog standard thriller against a character who is reading right alongside you. Her name's Susan - she's reading her ex-husband's manuscript, "Nocturnal Animals". She interrupts each chapter beginning with a little summary, critique and a touch of authorial orchestration. It gets clunky and heavy-handed. Her own story is squeezed in too, in a jarring parallel of unacted lives.

The thriller is gripping to begin with, and the writing quirky and arresting in a practiced idiosyncratic way. Unfortunately, both the quality of the thriller and the prose are unsustained. The life of the chief characters, Tony and Susan, is just drained out of them by the end by weak, insipid imagination and dodgy execution.


Nothing Special: Living Zen
Nothing Special: Living Zen
by Charlotte Joko Beck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fairly Special, 16 Dec. 2016
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"Thousands of words myriad interpretations/ Are only to free you from obstructions..." - so says Shitou Xiqian's 'Song of The Grass Hut' - well worth a read, alongside Ben Connelly's useful commentary 'Inside The Grass Hut', if you can find it.

There's plenty of words in Beck's 'Nothing Special' and it does get a bit repetitive. Still, attritionally, it rams home the message I guess. Perhaps it's only a stylistic preference but compared with, Ezra Bayda, say, I do feel Beck's prose lacks warmth, plus, she rather lectures. She's very convinced by her own assessments, including the notion that no truly realised person exists, which strikes me as needlessly presumptuous. Then there's the clunky metaphors she employs: whirlpools, plug sockets, Victorian houses. All of them indulgent misjudgements that actually only serve to confuse the points she's trying to make, in my opinion.

Beck has a strong grip on the Zen essentials though and conveys them in an everyday language using everyday situations as examples. It's a commendable achievement and certainly worth the reading effort.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Loving It, 16 Dec. 2016
A gorgeous edition of a little known masterpiece. Henry Green's 'Loving' is a strange and sumptuous literary feast. Set in 1940's Eire it's a story of below stairs goings on at a country folly of some English gentry. They come into it too in passing, the toffs, but more to compliment the domestic storylines. The chief ones being the romance between Raunce and Edith - the butler and the chambermaid, and the loss and subsequent discovery of Mrs Tennant's sapphire cluster broach.

The prose is exquisitely poetic, in a concrete arresting way, not airy fairily. You re-read passages just for the pure pleasure of it. And the characters are sympathetically drawn possessing everyday human frailties. Green's talent dredges a sea of meaning from the smallest gesture or look.

My small criticism is of the final quarter of the novel. I felt the cluster broach saga rather dragged and the ending arrived too abruptly (with a peculiarly trite, off-hand one liner). Which shouldn't detract from the luminescence of the work as a whole, which is a writerly master class.


The Gospel According To Jesus Christ (Panther)
The Gospel According To Jesus Christ (Panther)
by José Saramago
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Impersonal Jesus, 10 Dec. 2016
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"Men forgive him, for He knows not what he does."

It's the blunt punchline we've long seen coming - Christ and his followers cast as victims of a rapacious, insensitive God.

It's an interesting, worthwhile exercise this reimagining of Christ's story under a modern, more secular, sensibility. Though the arch humour, scattered throughout, is less amusing than Saramago thinks it is, in my opinion. And the story drags.

For example, you'd think crisis talks between God, Satan and Jesus Christ in the hands of a Nobel-winning writer would equal box office entertainment. Except it doesn't. Laboured and rather leaden. Saramago's interpretation one-dimensional and predictable. Maybe I just wasn't getting the joke.


Faceless Killers: Kurt Wallander
Faceless Killers: Kurt Wallander
Price: £3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chilly Fix, 21 Nov. 2016
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I enjoyed the chill, barren setting of this first Wallander crime novel. Wallander himself fitting the landscape perfectly with his cold, isolated persona - one of those hard to love, hard-drinking, career cops. Yet there's vulnerability and compassion beneath the hard-boiled machismo - Mankell sprinkles these sparks of warmth sparingly but tellingly.

There's an estranged daughter, ex-wife and a difficult father, approaching senility, thrown in with the murder mystery. It gives the novel an authentically human dimension. The crime is not neatly detected either - perhaps, again, a more realistic take on the crime thriller formula.

That said, I did find myself wanting more from the subsidiary characters - all lacked depth and definition. There lies the difficulty, I suppose, in attempting to straddle two genres. In the end, the imperative of the crime thriller overriding the demands of literary fiction.


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