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Marius Gabriel "Author" (London)

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An Unnecessary  Woman
An Unnecessary Woman
Price: £4.74

5.0 out of 5 stars An unnecessary masterpiece., 26 May 2015
There was no reason to write this book, just as there was no reason for its main character, solitary, erudite and self-sufficient Aaliya Saleh, to translate a great European novel into Arabic each year, and store the manuscript away from all other eyes. No reason, that is, other than the love of literature for its own sake.

Anyone who has lived in the Middle East knows at least one Aaliya -- those women whose level of intelligence and culture is so much higher than those around them that they retreat into solitude, understood by nobody in their families, unnecessary because they do not reproduce, cook, clean, or obey. As Aalia tells us, "Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn't sought after. Literature in translation? Why bother?"

Waspish, too clever for her own good, Aaliya dwells in the past and in books. She has seen enough of sex, war, love and death to want to continue her life through reading. She confesses, "I slipped into art to escape life. I sneaked off into literature."

When the outside world bursts into her solitude, the most amazing thing intruders find is the quantity of books that surround her -- worthless books, impossible to sell, valueless to the thief, unnecessary to life. Even her neighbours, sympathetic women, are puzzled. "My library has two books," one of them jokes, "and I have yet to finish coloring the second."

Her condition is a plaintive metaphor for the plight of a cultured mind in a barbaric world -- not just Aaliya Saleh in war-shattered Beirut, but any mind, anywhere. Rabih Alameddine has painted a stunning portrait of the disintegration of civilization, seen through the eyes of a blue-rinsed, 72-year-old Lebanese woman who has tried to hide from life until the day it catches up with her.

I recommend this book highly to all literate readers.

When We Were Orphans
When We Were Orphans
Price: £5.03

5.0 out of 5 stars A baffling but wonderfully enjoyable melting watch of a novel!, 24 May 2015
"When We Were Orphans" was Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth novel, written ten years after "The Remains of the Day," which is perhaps his most accessible book, an urbane tragicomedy of upper-class manners; and five years after "The Unconsoled," perhaps his most difficult book, a surrealistic nightmare in which logic drowns and the mind collapses.

"When We Were Orphans" is a bit of both, and the result is a very puzzling novel indeed. It's almost impossible to categorize. It begins as a childhood memoir, set in Shanghai during the first decade of the 20th Century. The central section is a pastiche of Dornford Yates' Richard Chandos, Sapper's Bulldog Drummond and other fictional detectives of the 1920s and 1930s; and the final part is a crescendo of nightmarish, surreal visions of war. There is an epilogue which brings the novel back onto an even keel, but does little to explain what it has all been about. Has it been a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Or a deeply profound history of the 20th Century, seen through the imagination of a child?

As we have all learned to our cost, trying to work out what Ishiguro's novels "are all about" can be a daunting challenge. With Ishiguro we find ourselves facing one of the undisputed literary giants of the 21st Century, but a giant who is wrapped in mysteries and enigmas. His books are webs from which the reader struggles to break free; and perhaps the best advice is not to struggle, but to simply enjoy the imprisonment, because once it is over, you will long to throw yourself back into the web!

A baffling but wonderfully enjoyable masterpiece!

The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
Price: £4.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Kazuo Ishiguro's masterpiece: Jeeves meets King Lear., 24 May 2015
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This heart-breakingly understated novel of duty and emotional reserve is Kazuo Ishiguro's most accomplished novel.

To any writer, "The Remains Of The Day" is a masterclass in narration. The narrator, known only as Mr Stevens, tells us his story in his own words. He prides himself on his command of language and on his felicity of phrasing; and yet, the story he tells us is quite different from the story he thinks he is telling. Hardly a sentence in this wonderful novel is devoid of resonances, and what appears to be the saga of successful careers and heroic characters actually turns out to be a portrait of the saddest failures and of wasted lives.

Deeply moving, and yet life-enhancing, this is a wonderful book. Despite the tragic elements, a current of almost Wodehousian humour prevents it from being anything other than a delight throughout.

An unlikely masterpiece. Highly recommended.

A Little Life
A Little Life
Price: £9.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very big novel indeed. Brutal, tender, agonizing, sad, and vividly-written., 21 May 2015
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This review is from: A Little Life (Kindle Edition)
This very long (700-page) masterpiece seems to have spilled out of its relatively young (40-year-old) author in an unstoppable torrent of prose, which came so fast and vividly that there was barely time to think about grammar or style. In places, the sentences trip over each other; in others, they are lucid and sharply-focused.

Hanya Yanagihara has taken as her subjects a group of young men of different backgrounds, who share a lot of life with each other. They went to the same minor college together, went to New York together to make it big, and grow into middle age together over the course of the novel. It's rather unusual these days to come across a novel about the various kinds of love between men -- brotherly love, friendship, sexual love, comradeship -- and one which tries so hard to make sense of male relationships. We men seldom talk about our friendships, or even think about them very much, and very often a woman's perspective is revealing.

These are characters drawn in very great depth and detail. The author builds each one up with immense care, which accounts in part for the length of this novel. We are given every detail, whether it pushes the novel along, or holds it up -- making for an immersive reading experience, but one which is at times exhausting.

The ethnicity and parenthood of each character is important to his identity. Jean-Baptiste Marion is the son of adoring and tender Haitians, who nurture his limited talents; Malcolm Irvine is the biracial son of a rather cold, wealthy family, who will never need to work, but who does; Willem Ragnarsson is the son of a Swedish immigrant Wyoming ranch-hand who aspires (in Midnight Cowboy style) to become an actor; and then there is the central character, Jude St Francis.

Beautiful yet scarred, brilliant yet unable to respect himself, Jude the obscure has no ethnicity, and apparently no parentage. Even his name needs to be explained. What he has in their place is pain -- daily, excruciating, debilitating pain. The slow, relentless unfolding of Jude's pain, its terrible origins, its development, and the tragic way in which he himself perpetuates it, form the central theme of the novel -- and give "A Little Life" its darkness.

Jude's suffering is what has made "A Little Life" notorious, and is inevitably a talking-point when the book is discussed. I will only warn readers that the descriptions are unusually graphic and upsetting. "A Little Life" has some painful episodes. The cumulative effect is unsettling, even depressing in places. If this novel needs an "Explicit Content" label, that's not only because it describes agonizing things, but because it does so extraordinarily well. And that can lay a heavy weight on the reader. Although Hanya Yanigihara counterbalances Jude's inner suffering with his worldly success, this isn't, in the end, a very cheerful book.

I found it interesting to contrast this novel with Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects. Flynn's is a commercial novel, which I would not normally put next to a literary heavyweight like "A Little Life." And yet, treating many of the same subjects in a much shorter and shallower scope, it manages (I feel) to say a great deal. "A Little Life" (the title is drawn from TS Eliot's "The Waste Land") is a novel on the grand scale, which gives a nod to Thomas Hardy -- especially "Jude The Obscure" and "Tess Of The Durbervilles," both books which take the ineluctability of a cruel destiny as their theme.

But doom is not what I carried away from the novel. In fact, in the end, I found the characters and the plot less interesting than the page-by-page prose, which is really marvelous. Hanya Yanigihara is a very good writer indeed. She has an almost supernatural sensitivity to sounds, colours, smells, light; and the reader experiences this book through the rich immediacy of her descriptions. The warmth of the friendships between her four riders in the chariot is developed and described through the meals they eat, the apartments they share, the daily routines that transect and intermesh. That is what makes the book such a nutritious and generous and really BIG slice of life, reminiscent of the best of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And in the end, I am very glad I read it.

I would recommend this to all literate readers. It's a long read, and in places a gruelling one, but it's a hot contender for the American novel of the year.

Wild Tales (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Wild Tales (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Price: £5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Great soundtrack from an Oscar-winning movie score composer, 19 May 2015
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The movie is wildly entertaining -- just try and drag your eyes away from the screen! If you haven't seen it, it's brilliant. The humour is ironic and very "Hispanic," dark and wicked.

The soundtrack, composed by the hugely talented Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, makes a big contribution to the movie, so I bought it, and I'm really glad I did, as it's an excellent standalone album, full of great tunes. A few are something along the lines of the Western soundtracks composed by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino -- i.e. mock-heroic, with twanging guitars and brassy trumpets -- others are more fully orchestral, or softly choral. Practically every track is capable of getting under your skin.

As a bonus there are a couple of classic pop-songs, too, including Bobby Womack's "Fly Me To The Moon" and Sia's "Titanium."

By the way, Santaolalla's other OST albums are also well worth listening to -- "The Last Of Us," "Camino," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel," in particular. The latter two have won Academy Awards for Original Musical Score, and are beautiful standalone albums.

Highly recommended.

Sol Invictus
Sol Invictus
Price: £7.49

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Less aggro, more music. Addictive! Won't please the heavy brigade, an evolving Faith No More!, 18 May 2015
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This review is from: Sol Invictus (MP3 Download)
One of rock's most ferocious groups of geniuses stop throttling each other long enough to produce their first album in 17 years, and it's a belter. That's enough to bring tears to your eyes.

However, the fairy tale is true. Here comes "Sol Invictus," a glorious triumph for the original "Album Of The Year" lineup:

Mike Bordin - drums
Roddy Bottum - keyboards, vocals
Billy Gould - bass guitar
Jon Hudson - guitar
Mike Patton - vocals

It's glorious because this isn't yet another reunion album originating in softening cores, or depleted bank accounts. It's a musically rich, mature offering which shows how the band have evolved.

"Sol Invictus," the measured, eerie title track, contains the couplet:

"Floorboards and the ceilings are creaking
And the roof is old and leaking"

-- but there's no sense of a decaying house here. In fact, it's a Gothic cathedral of an album, full of dark corners and ornate embellishments, and after many listenings, it's still unfolding for me. Together with Blur's first album in 12 years, "The Magic Whip," this a sumptuous feast for those who love intelligent, richly-layered rock music.

Vocalist Mike Patton, often described as "the greatest voice in Rock," is the presiding genius of a number of scary experimental bands of recent years -- Mr Bungle, Dillinger Escape Plan, Lovage, John Zorn and others. But it is as frontman for Faith No More that he has had most commercial success, and that's perhaps because he's been subjected to the rigours of working with talents as big as his.

In any case, this is just the right blend of craziness, creativity and discipline. It ranks with Mr Bungle's "California" (to my mind a masterpiece) as a high point of Patton's multifarious output.

Patton shines, with his amazing six-octave range, but does not dominate. Drumming, bass, background vocals and guitars are all outstanding. Keyboard work from Roddy Bottum is just wonderful, helping to define the collection. Urgent, driving, dynamic, exciting -- this is everything you could hope for in a Faith No More album.

The musical references are, predictably, varied. The title track is largely acoustic, with a kind of creepy spirituality. There are rolling anthems like "Superhero," an Argentine-influenced tango, complete with Latin drum kit and accordion ("Rise Of The Fall"), and vocal gymnastics aplenty("Motherf****r" and "Cone Of Shame").

The final track, "From The Dead," sums up the achievement of getting the band back together:

"We can bag some history on present time
Watch your watch unwind
We've been turning mysteries to nursery rhymes
Sigils and more signs
Welcome home, my friend."

Have FNM softened? I don't think so, although they have matured. Mike Patton is still capable of producing the sort of music that is used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, but this isn't it. On a lot of these tracks, that famous voice is muted to a soft growl, backed with surprisingly delicate arrangements.

It would be hard to top earlier achievements like "Angel Dust" and "Album Of The Year." Most people I've talked to agree that "Sol Invictus" doesn't do that, but it's different yet just as good, and what more can you ask for? Those who were looking for hard 'n heavy above all else have been disappointed. But rock itself has evolved in two decades. A generation that hasn't met Faith No More now has a chance to judge a brand new record. When asked what reaction he expected, Patton said,

"I have no idea! Who knows whether they will like it or not? I never wanted to be a 50-year-old guy making music for teenagers. I don't think any of us did. But all I can tell you that is we're making good s***. I don't care who listens."

Good music will always win listeners with taste. This is not an album that can be summed up easily, or digested in a short while, and that means we will still be listening to it years from now.

Very highly recommended.

A God in Ruins
A God in Ruins
Price: £7.99

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Destined to be on the bestseller lists for a long, long time -- a moving, beautifully-written, engrossing novel!, 8 May 2015
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This review is from: A God in Ruins (Kindle Edition)
Teddy, the hero of Kate Atkinson's "A God In Ruins," is a delightful character. Gentle, bemused by his own survival, wryly observing a world which changes out of all recognition, he is a man whose wartime experiences were so shattering that he "never adjusted to having a future." One of the things this cryptic phrase means is that he gets blamed by succeeding generations for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

Teddy strikes the keynote of this wonderful novel, which spans a vast and turbulent period -- almost a hundred years. His life is a common one, for a man of his generation, a life shared by so many. Hauled willy-nilly into the war, and then deposited willy-nilly into the peace, the only way he can make sense of the world is by showing it small kindnesses. And that may not be enough to satisfy his family.

However, it is his kindness, his ability to observe the smallest detail and feel compassion with it, which make him so touching a figure. He is very much a spokesperson for this remarkable author, who is able to encompass the flight of a skylark, or the terrible thunder of a thousand-bomber raid, with equal conviction.

I loved this author's brilliant "Life After Life," but I think "A God In Ruins" is in many ways a more solid, accomplished book, even though Kate Atkinson describes it as "a companion piece" to the other. Like some other favourites of mine, Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet and Anthony Powell's Dance To The Music Of Time, this two-novel series explores the postwar consequences of what people are made to do and endure in wartime. To me, this is the great subject of modern fiction, and Kate Atkinson has much to share with us.

In particular, she asks whether our human natures can survive the savagery in them, or whether the divine in us is ruined irrevocably. The book will give different answers, I am sure, to different readers -- but to me, it was a moving and eventually joyful read.

But more than the philosophical aspect, this is a book which will keep you reading with pleasure to the very last page. The novel extends to the second and third generations after Teddy -- his wayward daughter, Viola, and her offspring, children of easier times. Kate Atkinson skewers 1960s and 1970s pretensions with wit and precision, leaving us in no doubt that, for all their faults, Teddy's was what Americans call "the greatest generation." There are a number of very amusing moments here, which those of us who lived through that period are bound to enjoy (and wince at).

A gripping story, complex and superbly-realized characters, sublime prose -- what more can be wanting for this to be a major bestseller?

Recommended to all literate readers!
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2015 7:27 PM BST

Hungry People
Hungry People
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sophisticated, funny, exciting, brilliant. One of the best albums yet from this Lebanese genius. Highly recommended., 6 May 2015
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This review is from: Hungry People (MP3 Download)
Rabih Abou-Khalil is one of those serious musicians -- very serious musicians -- who loves to have fun. Just look at the cover, and the titles of the tracks, to get a idea. He has been playing the oud (lute) since the age of four, studied flute under Walther Theurer at the Academy of Classical Music in Munich, and is also one of the foremost modern composers of Arabic music.

But don't let those formidable credentials intimidate you. His ensemble music is full of lively melodies, and foot-tapping (sometimes foot-stomping) rhythms. He loves musical jokes, and they pop up unexpectedly all the time. There is also a deep vein of melancholy reflectiveness in his music.

This collection is extremely tight, another characteristic of Abou-Khalil's music. Strict discipline is maintained so that the improvisations are always meaningful. From a rock-solid base, Abou-Khalil himself, and his partners in crime, Gavino Murgia, Luciano Biondini, Michel Godard and Jarrod Cagwin, produce stupendous solos.

He is one of the few musicians whom I regard as a lifetime companion (Frank Zappa is another). I have been listening to Abou-Khalil's albums for many years, and have never tired of any of them; in fact, they keep unfolding, and the older I get, the more I see in them, and the more I enjoy them.

So the arrival of this new album is a great joy to me. I know I'm going to be listening to it and appreciating it for years to come. I think it's one of his best yet.

Very highly recommended to all who love originality.

The Magic Whip
The Magic Whip
Price: £9.89

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twelve years on from "Think Tank," their best album since "Parklife." If you're new to Blur, start here!, 5 May 2015
This review is from: The Magic Whip (MP3 Download)
The songwriting for this wonderful album was apparently started during a Japanese tour, and some of the songs -- "New World Towers" in particular -- have a remote, far eastern aura to them. Others, like "Ice Cream Man," evoke a nostalgic return to Blur's Britpop roots, with memories of Essex in the 1980s. Overall, the album is slower than previous Blur albums. It's less driven, more melodic, wistful, and ironic. And absolutely addictive.

Songs about dreams, about dying, about lost love and lost youth, strike the keynotes. It's a reflective collection, with a touch of midlife crisis about it, but musically, it's their best since Parklife. Their first new album in twelve years is an absolute masterpiece. Nor is this a Damon Albarn solo effort with backing -- it's the authentic Blur sound that we've missed so much, united and rich with ideas.

Their last album, "Think Tank" in 2003, got mixed reviews. It was an oddly uneven collection, showing some strange influences, despite many moments of genius, and I suspect it lost Blur a lot of followers. "The Magic Whip" will hopefully get them back, and bring in new ones.

It has some of their best melodies, and arrangements that are perfectly-pitched, not too lush and not too spare. "New World Towers," "Pyongyang," and "My Terracotta Heart" are all outstanding tracks.

All around, a fantastic album. If you're new to Blur, who are probably (pace Oasis) the best of all Britpop bands, this is a great CD to start with.

Rimbaud Complete (Modern Library Classics)
Rimbaud Complete (Modern Library Classics)
Price: £8.86

5.0 out of 5 stars A very American translation of a very French poet, but a valiant effort, and well worth reading!, 5 May 2015
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Translating poetry is one of the most difficult (and thankless) tasks. Wyatt Mason deserves both praise and thanks for this very interesting edition. With an eye on moderns inspired by Rimbaud, including Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation poets, and before them, also TS Eliot and Ezra Pound -- Mason has produced a translation of Rimbaud in a very American idiom.

That this somehow works is evidenced by the praise the book has received. However, there are aspects of this labour of love that are repugnant. Turning a poet as essentially 19th-Century-French as Rimbaud into 21st-Century-American does produce not so much a translation as a transformation. To European readers, what is erotic and daring in Rimbaud's French may seem reduced to mere vulgarity in American English, and that is a great pity.

The less sexually explicit poems fare much better.

The great things about this edition are that the French original is printed side-by-side with the translations, and that almost all of Rimbaud's poems are here. It's a very valuable book.

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