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The Children Act
The Children Act
Price: £3.66

3.0 out of 5 stars Judge of My Salvation, 11 May 2015
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This review is from: The Children Act (Kindle Edition)
It's so strange that I keep returning to this author when I realise with a start that I've not rated a book by him beyond 3 stars since the hypnotic yet terrifying "Enduring Love" and "Saturday". There's just so much promise in each novel that I keep expecting to relive the magic of those two works. That McEwan is a genius wordsmith is very much evident. There are phrases and lines that cause you to linger over, and his narrative prose is impeccable, if sometimes sounding a little lofty, but yet possessing a clarity that strikes a clean note that resonates.

As with his other works, McEwan does copious research in whatever topic he is writing about. In this slim novel, he inhabits the skin of sixtyish Fiona, a judge presiding over the family court, and the courtroom drama and dialogue is convincingly played out. Interspersed with the ins and outs of her work life, she is confronted, in this late comfortable stage in her life, with a shocking request by her husband to have an affair, before it's all too late. This startling event intersects strangely with her entanglement with the subject of a case, a seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, who is dying of leukaemia, because he is refusing blood transfusion for religious reasons. Fiona's judgement of the case affects her in unexpected and terrifying ways, and McEwan takes pains to flesh out the minutiae of Fiona's conflicted feelings. However, despite the sensitivity of the portrayal, it all felt a little flat in the end. Like Fiona's love for classical music and piano playing that features quite a bit, the novel is written with a methodical and controlled style, and the precision of each stroke is painted with a pointed effect in mind, which zaps all sense of spontaneity and passion from the writing.


Get in Trouble: Stories
Get in Trouble: Stories
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Realism, 6 May 2015
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In this unusual collection of short stories, Link examines human nature in bizarre settings that dangle at the edge of fantasy. In worlds that look suspiciously like our own, but with elements that betray their otherness, Link manages to convince the reader of the realism in the dark humour of her tales, inviting you to laugh along, albeit with a nervous eye cast over your shoulder just to check that the rules of your own reality are unharmed in the process.

While all nine tales are wickedly spellbinding, the two stories that bookend this collection are especially captivating. In "The Summer People", Fran, the child of a single male parent finds herself left yet again to her own devices when her inexplicably irresponsible father leaves for another expedition while she struggles with a debilitating flu. Everything progresses with the predictability of a teenage high school yarn until the reader encounters the mysterious summer people that she is tasked to take care of, and the logic of Link's fictional universe takes over, layering over the one we take for granted as real.

In a similar fashion, the last story, "Light", begins innocently enough with a scene at a bar and a flirtation between a man and a woman turned sour when the man becomes nasty, and then in an act of sly vengeance, the woman takes out a needle from her sewing kit, finishes her drink, then coolly jabs the man in his buttock with the needle. And soon, a conversation picks up in the next table about pocket universes, and babies born without a shadow, and how "over-the-counter shadows - prosthetics, available in most drugstores, not expensive and reasonably durable", might be the solution, as well as the fact that those with two shadows did not grow up happy. The transition into Link's parallel universe is swift and smooth and by the time the reader follows Lindsey (the aforementioned buttock jabber) home, "a stucco house in a scab-raw development in Dade County", the fact that she had two shadows, one of whom grew to become her twin brother Alan, becomes such a naturally accepted fact, it does not seem in the least fantastic in the way Link tells it.

In the other stories, we meet doll boyfriends who can be turned on and off, in normal or spectral mode as in "The New Boyfriend", as well as a fan who stalks a personality to a hotel holding two separate conventions, one for dentists, and another one for superheroes in "Secret Identity". In a past-as-future speculative tale, "Valley of the Girls", two royal siblings have 'Faces' or decoys who appear in public while they live in their burial chambers in the pyramids, getting ready for the afterlife.

Each of these tales transports the reader to an alternate universe that beguiles and bewilders, and a bit of each lingers with you even after the tale ends.


Elizabeth is Missing
Elizabeth is Missing
Price: £3.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Memory Lapses, 3 May 2015
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A tender novel about an old woman, Maude, who believes her good friend Elizabeth, is missing, and she is determined to find clues in order to find her. But the case is marred by a major complication - our silver-haired Nancy Drew has dementia. Maude struggles to hold information in her head, as she furiously jots down notes on pieces of paper she tucks into her handbag, but it is a surprise whenever she uncovers a fact she has forgotten. As her confusion builds, vivid memories of her childhood flits into view, even as her moment-to-moment consciousness becomes more and more chequered.

It is to Healey's credit that her first-person narrative works well, given Maude's mental state. The story of her current search for Elizabeth, which is frustrated by disbelieving family members and her own forgetfulness, soon bleeds into the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, when she was a young girl, and the two narratives converge in surprising ways.

Healey's portrayal of Maude is tender and elicits much empathy, even as Maude muddles along and reveals a candid awareness of her own faculties. She calls Elizabeth's son, and finds she is unable to recall why she is calling. In the awkward silence over the receiver, she reflects "The drone of a car somewhere in the distance is like a fly buzzing under the glass, like a memory flinging itself at the surface of my brain". In another instance, Maude looks at her granddaughter and muses, "if I look away will I forget who she is?" Her moments of lucidity are always marred by an sobering awareness that her grasp of things had lapsed. She notes her daughter Helen's frustration when she asks yet another tangential question in the midst of their packing to move to Helen's house because she is no longer able to care for herself: "And I can't think what I was asking her anyway, the questions have lost their definiteness, tangle amongst the cobwebs in my head", and looking at the newspaper packages she has just wrapped, "they are strange muffled shapes and I push them away. There is something frightening about their facelessness. They must be what my thoughts look like, masked and unrecognisable".

In a sense, this is a story about old age and its struggle for dignity, cleverly disguised as a whodunnit, and it is all the more poignant for the gutsy heroine who refuses to let dementia get in her way.


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Price: £4.27

4.0 out of 5 stars Whisked to Fairyland, 25 April 2015
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Among tales about little girls who get whisked away to fairyland, this one stands out for a less than perfect heroine, September. We are told she is heartless, though the narrator is quick to qualify: "One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh suite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one". This is but one of many whimsical nuggets in this delightful story that keeps holding this reader's attention.

September encounters allies like the literary Wyvern (not a dragon mind you) who tells (yes of course he talks) September he was raised by a library, though he only knows stuff from A to L, those being the volumes of encyclopaedia he was raised on. She also meets a soap golem, who gives her baths to clean her courage, which is of course not as "clean and new" as when she was first born and that "every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you'll never be brave again". September is sent on a quest by the evil marquess to extract a sword from a dead forest, but of course she also throws many obstacles along the way. Who the marquess is and how and why she usurped queen Mallow's throne is something that comes to light in the first installment of the fantastically well-written fairytale.

It just gets a little dark and gory, and unlike conventional children's stories where children fall and hurt themselves with bruises and bumps, this one includes scenes of battle and bloodshed. Nonetheless, this novel is truly engaging and a welcome addition to the YA fantasy bookshelf.


Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (Vintage Classics)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (Vintage Classics)
by Raymond Carver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Lives of Quiet Desperation, 21 April 2015
This is Carver's earliest collection, but his trademark sparse prose and the gritty kitchen sink setting of his stories are already indelibly stamped. In the first story "Fat", a waitress tells a seemingly pointless story about an extremely heavyset customer she served at the diner, but through her narration, the reader learns more about her and the quiet desperation she feels about her own life. And that is Carver-style, in the way he draws his reader's gaze on the seemingly innocuous, only to reveal the importance of the periphery.

In one of the more famous stories in this collection, "Neighbors", an unhappy couple find themselves slowly developing an obsession with a couple they envy across the hall, to the point they start to inhabit their home and their lives. A boy plays hooky to go fishing, and finds that while he can bring home the biggest catch, he finds he cannot confront the truth of his parents' failing marriage and his own intense loneliness in "Nobody Said Anything".

Elsewhere, the stories are full of men and women who talk but are not able to communicate, and when words prove meaningless, violence threatens to surface. Carver excels at painting working-class characters, who are living hand to mouth, and just making do, sometimes trying and failing, or on the brink of despair. The pain is never melodramatic, but quietly borne. The vacuum of their lives are filled with knick knacks and ordinary objects that litter their living spaces, holding their attention when staring their problems head-on proves too hard and distressing.


History of the Rain: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014
History of the Rain: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014
Price: £5.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Find Me in the River, 2 April 2015
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The 19-year-old narrator, Ruth Swain, tries to tell a story about her father through family history and mythmaking, and in the process she reveals more about herself, as she lies in her room in the attic, suffering from a debilitating illness. She justifies early in the book the importance of this enterprise: "We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That's how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told".

Ruth's voice is sardonic and yet tender, as she recounts her father's love of literature and poetry (with a name like Virgil, it seems inevitable), which is a heritage she shows through the many literary works she weaves into her narrative, complete (and sometimes exhaustingly) with book edition and publication details, but there is a sense of authenticity in her methodical listing.

Lyrically written, it is full of Irish wit, colourful villagers, and wisdom in the vein of imaginative pondering about the cyclicality of life: "Because here is what I know: the rain becomes the river that goes to the sea and becomes the rain that becomes the river". However, because it depressed me so much reading it, I could only dip into it in small doses, so that by the end of the book, I felt worn out by it.


Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell 3rd (third) Edition (2010)
Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell 3rd (third) Edition (2010)
by Chris Riddell
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Llittle Girl and Her Hairy Best Friend, 29 Mar. 2015
I was attracted to Chris Riddell's work mainly because of the fascinating illustrations he did for Neil Gaiman. To my delight, I discovered the Ottoline series and this is the first installment I read (and also the 3rd book in the series, I just found out).

In a quirky blend of the familiar and fantastical, this book should appeal to the young, even the exceptionally resistant, reader. Ottoline is a seemingly ordinary little girl with a penchant for wearing unusual mismatched shoes, who lives in a high-rise apartment building with Mr Munroe, a hairy bog creature. Her parents are professional explorers who are away in Norway searching for the elusive Quite Big Foot, and they send Ottoline her own Amateur Roving Collector's Pass that she could use for her next holiday. As Ottoline is planning her next trip and furiously reading up and buying up travelling gear, Mr Munroe suddenly disappears. With the clues he leaves behind, Ottoline embarks on an adventure in search of her friend, together with the help of a Canadian Bear she meets in the laundry room at the basement of her building, who should be hibernating but had decided to take a little vacation himself in the apartment building.

The book also comes with a pair of bog goggles that helps you see hidden pictures in the pages, as you journey with Mr Munroe. Delightfully quaint.


We Are Water
We Are Water
by Wally Lamb
Edition: Paperback
Price: £20.15

4.0 out of 5 stars Secrets that Bind, 23 Mar. 2015
This review is from: We Are Water (Paperback)
Wally Lamb is one author who never misses his mark in his precise and moving depiction of American families and individuals. His ear for clear, simple prose and fine attention to character is a consistent trait in all his novels that I've read so far, starting from "She's Come Undone", "I Know This Much is True", "The Hour I First Believed", and now this novel. They are all heavy tomes, but somehow it never felt like any of them were a chapter, a page or even a word too long.

In "We Are Water", Lamb starts off with a messy family situation - middle-aged artist and divorcee Annie Oh is about to get married again after her 27-year first marriage breaks up, but this time, to a woman. Understandably, her three grown children, and her ex-husband have more than their hands full, dealing with this shocking news. While it could easily have slipped into a trashy pulp novel with a lot of bruised egos, familial hurt, and all of the stock responses that an inciting incident like a lesbian wedding could conjure up, it is to Lamb's credit that his writing is nuanced and convincing.

A large part of the success of the novel comes from how easily Lamb gets under the skin of not just his main characters, but any one of the supporting cast as well. With inter-chapters that initially focus on the major characters Annie, and her estranged husband Orion, in each of their first-person voices, Lamb expertly gets into their psyche and backstories smoothly, so the narrative that unfolds is seamless and makes the reader want to keep on reading. Each of the Oh children, level-headed Ariane, her rebellious twin turned military man and bible-thumper, Andrew, and the youngest, waitress and stalled bit-part actress Marissa, are given voice in the second part of the novel, and their stories add to the rich tapestry that weaves the novel together.

I only felt a bit let down by the way two acts of violence, which come on explosively one after another, are handled in the novel, and especially the delay tactics that were employed towards the end, which I felt broke the momentum of the otherwise wonderfully-paced novel. But that is a small complaint, and the novel is nonetheless an enjoyable and satisfying read.


A Spool of Blue Thread
A Spool of Blue Thread
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Family Yarn, 9 Mar. 2015
This review is from: A Spool of Blue Thread (Hardcover)
I'll be honest and come right out and say it - I didn't give this book 4 stars for the plot, but for the writing. There is nothing spectacular about the story of the Whitshank family, and the most drama you would find is maybe a fistfight between brothers, a seething quarrel about the colour of a porch swing between a couple, and a wayward son who unnerves his parents by announcing he's gay.

But if you've read Anne Tyler before, you will be familiar with the kind of magic she spins with her deceptively simple prose to colour those unspectacular moments so that they are dusted with a speck of grace that shimmers at the corners of your consciousness. You might not even realise how much Tyler has made you care for her characters till tragedy strikes and you feel the pang of loss as if you would a close friend.

Tyler knows families, and she keeps to familiar terrain in her 20th novel, in this story about Red and Abby Whitshank, and their grown children, who descend on the family home to offer help when their parents show signs of unravelling with age. Sibling rivalry, family secrets, and the myth-making that governs all family histories are all part and parcel of Tyler's palette, and she paints these details in with her usual confident and sensitive brushstrokes.

However, if there is one complaint I have with this novel (which I felt was a return to form after the last two, "Noah's Compass" and "The Beginner's Goodbye"), it would be the seemingly haphazard structure that saw the narrative jump back in time about two-thirds of the way in, so much so that the reader feels a bit disoriented. While this section revealed some key facts that made us see the characters and their forebears in a new light, it derailed the narrative and frayed the threads that bound the story in the first part, which is ironic considering the title of this novel.


The Strange Library
The Strange Library
Price: £6.62

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Into the Labyrinthine Reading Room, 22 Feb. 2015
A delightful little book for anyone who loves libraries and who's ever fantasised about staying on after closing hours and perhaps visiting a hidden basement or unknown reading room. Murakami keeps his bizarre and dreamlike narrative simple and yet horrifyingly fascinating, as a young boy finds himself with a strange little old man in Room 107 of the local library who insists he must go to the reading room to read his books when the library is almost closing... Saying any more gives the story away, but it suffices to say that Murakami fans would find familiar features like the detailed description of delectable food, as well as the by-now iconic mysterious pretty girl with long straight hair that shines as if there were jewels in it, even in this slim volume. The pictures also add to the visual enjoyment, and serves as an interesting counterpoint to the narrative.


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