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The Strange Library
The Strange Library
Price: £6.49

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.


The Leftovers
The Leftovers
Price: £4.44

3.0 out of 5 stars Don't Leave Me Behind, 16 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Leftovers (Kindle Edition)
For a novel that bases its premise on an apocalyptic event, what unfolds is surprisingly microcosmic with its focus fixed squarely on the residents of a small suburban American town.

The Rapture suddenly happens and seemingly random people are taken, leaving behind survivors who range from embittered believers who feel betrayed that it did not seem to fit the biblical prophecy to confused individuals who find themselves inexplicably bereaved. In the midst of this supposedly global phenomenon, Perrotta trains his eye on the Garveys, a typical nuclear family who finds that being spared from what many were beginning to call the Sudden Departure did not make them impervious to the tragedy around them. Their family unit falls apart when the wife, Laurie, leaves home to join the Watchers, a cultic group who believes that the Sudden Departure was a divine warning of the world’s ultimate demise and refuses to move on from the tragedy. Instead they try to prevent others from doing so as well, though they effectively just stalk members of the community, in their anonymous white garb, cigarettes firmly in mouth, because who cares about lung cancer, when the world is ending anyway.

While Perrotta paints quite an interesting cast of characters, varied enough to engage the reader, and his prose is surprisingly light when dealing with a sobering subject (speculative though it may be) there just isn’t enough meat to sustain the narrative. By the second half of the novel, any one of the characters could have just been dealing with the daily issues that the rest of humankind face, and the Sudden Departure probably just gave these characters more reason to be a little more wasted, spaced out, and self-involved than the rest of the other typical wasted, spaced out, and self-involved individuals.


Longbourn
Longbourn
Price: £5.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Life Downstairs, 11 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Longbourn (Kindle Edition)
An alternative take on the goings-on in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", a 'simultan-uel' if you will, imaginatively seen through the eyes of the help at the Bennet household. Sarah, the teenage housemaid, takes centrestage, and the action happens mostly in the kitchen and servants' quarters while Elizabeth, Jane and their sisters deal with their dramas upstairs in the drawing rooms and parlour. Fans of the original novel will take pleasure in matching the events with this version, from the giddy excitement at the Bingleys' arrival at Netherfield, to Collins's clumsy courtship of Elizabeth, to Lydia's elopement with Wickham, the latter given a meatier and more sinister role that sees him meddling with the lives of the central characters in Baker's narrative.

It is to Baker's credit that she keeps more or less to the tone and language of a Regency novel, and she awakens the reader's consciousness that someone needs to be laundering the Bennet girls' many dresses, curling their hair, sewing rosettes to their dancing shoes, and stoking the fires before dawn, getting chilblains and blisters doing all those chores to make the narrative of "Pride and Prejudice" possible. I found it especially sobering that Liz's memorable trek across the country to be with a sick Jane in P&P that was held up as evidence of her gutsy and selfless spirit came at a cost to her servants, who had to attend to her mud-caked boots and soiled skirts.

With such exhausting detail to remain faithful to Austen's novel, there is a good chance that the novel could fall flat on its face. However, Baker's work succeeds because she is able flesh out her characters well and incorporate them seamlessly into the narrative. Sarah is fully-realised as a budding girl who has aspirations which are contained by the stark realisation of her station in life. The mysterious James Smith, too, who comes to be the Bennet's footman, has a story entwined with the Bennet household and that gives a surprisingly fresh angle to one of the characters originally encountered in P&P. The second half of the novel also turns its focus on the war, which casts a harsh light on the significance of the militia who are stationed in the village, and contrasts itself from the light and bubbly narrative of P&P.


The Martian
The Martian
Price: £1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Boy On Mars, 5 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The Martian (Kindle Edition)
This novel was originally an online hit in serialised form on Weir's own blog, which became so overwhelmingly popular that he decided to self-publish it as an e-book on Amazon. It soon attracted enough buzz for a publisher to pick it up, which generated even more rabid success. In a sense, this gungho DIY spirit is mirrored in Weir's protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney, as the story finds him stranded on Mars after being left for dead in an accident by his crewmates.

The journal entries which make up the bulk of the narrative read well in episodic form, and it is clear Weir knows his subject matter, as he traces Watney's fight for survival with mind-boggling scientific facts that he takes pains to make comprehensible to the average layman reader. That Watney is instantly likeable as a resourceful everyday man, who recounts his days (or sols) on Mars with wit and candour, is both the novel's strength and weakness. It makes it easy for the reader to root for him, but at the same time, there is very little psychological depth apparent in the character, which perhaps, isn't the business of this novel. Watney treats each obstacle that comes his way at heartstopping moments with increasingly predictable levity, while retaining the goofy and good-natured "oh, heck it" attitude of a college frat bro. There is surprisingly very little mention of his ties with people back on Earth, which makes possible his being a very present-minded individual. Even his crewmates get more development as individuals under their spacesuits, even though this is purposefully done in a segment when they converse with their loved ones from outer space.

That said, Weir paces the action well, and allows Watney's journal entries to speak for themselves, interspersed with the goings-on at NASA, as they scramble to come up with a rescue plan. Weir only comes in as an omniscient narrator at a few critical junctures, when the reader needs to know some crucial facts to get a better sense of the situation.

This is a novel that a reader plunges in already knowing the ending, but that does not detract from the enjoyment of anticipating the 'hows' that ending entails.


Shouldn't You Be in School? (All The Wrong Questions Book 3)
Shouldn't You Be in School? (All The Wrong Questions Book 3)
Price: £2.69

2.0 out of 5 stars All Sound and Fury, 5 Feb. 2015
The third installment of the "All the Wrong Questions" series, and I'm ready to give up. Lemony Snicket is still stuck in the claustrophoic seaside town, Stain'd-by-the-Sea, as he gets drawn deeper into more adventures with the expanding cast of quirky characters, but coming no closer to solving the new case of the mysterious fires across town.

All the shady happenings are linked to the villain, Hangfire, who may or may not be an associate of Ellington Feint and her Bombinating Beast statue, who disguised herself as Cleo Knight the chemist (in the previous installment), whose boyfriend Jake, is a cook at Hungry's. Snicket's evolving relationship with Moxie Mallahan, the girl sleuth/out-of-work journalist, and his conflicting feelings for Ellington Feint, is politely mentioned but left hanging as he rushes about town, from the library, to a ersatz Education Ministry office that is bundling the town's children to a mysterious Wade Academy,where everyone is drugged out in a laudanum haze. Add to that Snicket's invention of a fragmentary plot, that his friends help to carry out, and the effect is that of a mood piece with a lot of conversation and action, which eventually spirals into nothingness.


The Robber Bride: Includes the short story 'I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth'
The Robber Bride: Includes the short story 'I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth'
Price: £4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars The Absent Protagonist, 5 Jan. 2015
At first glance, this novel would appear to be about Zenia, an enigmatic woman, as told through the perspective of the three characters whom she victimizes and betrays. There’s Tony, the no-nonsense military historian, Charis, the otherworldly spiritual waif, and Roz, large of heart and body, who masks her insecurities beneath her loud voice and laughter, and corporate success.

As the story progresses, we discover that Zenia is a composite character conjured up by the three women because she embodies a different (if similarly malevolent) personality to each of them. Zenia betrays all three of them – she assumes sisterhood with these women, but instead steals from them, though her acts are seemingly unaccountable. When Charis wonders about a pointless bloody act, besides possibly stealing her lover Billy away from her, Tony says: “Because she’s Zenia…. Don’t fret about motives. Attila the Hun didn’t have motives. He just had appetites. She killed them. It speaks for itself”.

Tony’s assessment of Zenia is not unwarranted. Her husband West,an ex-boyfriend of Zenia, was also wrested from her, and she concludes that “Zenia likes challenges. She likes breaking and entering, she likes taking things that aren’t hers. Billy, like West, was just target practice. She probably has a row of men’s dicks nailed to her wall, like stuffed animal heads.”

While it seems that Zenia has a predatory and parasitic relationship with the three of them, in reality, the nature of it is more symbiotic. It is Zenia who binds them together against her. But what is more complex is that they need Zenia in order to define themselves.

Each of them identifies something they have in common with Zenia – with Roz, it is their mixed parentage, when Zenia reveals her family history – how her father was not Jewish, but married to one, who was also not Jewish by religion but by relation to two of her grandparents. “’Yes,’ says Roz. So Zenia is a mixture, like herself!”. Zenia’s story is what she wants to hear – besides identification with the other (that Zenia represented), it was also a chance for her to come to terms with her feelings about her father being a “fixer”, and kind of a go-between for the Nazis during the war. Roz reasons: “She remembers her father, the old rascal; she’s glad to know that his dubious talents were of service, because he’s still her favourite parent and she welcomes the chance to think well of him”. While this particular story does not gel with the other identities Zenia has forged for herself to the others and Roz calls her bluff, Zenia nonetheless manages to deflect the insinuations and justify her falsehoods, and ingratiate herself to Roz, flattering her that it is only to her that she is able to tell the truth.

It becomes arguable if Zenia is clearly the aggressor and the three women her victims because she serves the function of having them accept their dual nature of being self and other through this reflection. Zenia is both who they aspire to be and who they most fear and detest - her ability to encompass them all is ultimately what gives Zenia her powers. When that is accomplished and they no longer need her, she disappears (or is disposed of).


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children Book 1)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children Book 1)
Price: £5.14

4.0 out of 5 stars Sepia-Toned Mystery, 4 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It's always quite a feat to introduce a magical world in a story and making it believable. And it's even more impressive when a new author achieves that with his first novel. With a series of unsettling old black and white photographs (mostly of children), Ransom Riggs comes up with a narrative so creepily engaging that it was with a pang when I came to the end. That there is a sequel reassured me that I could always go back to this world in a kind of "loop" that the author talks about, which is a kind of time travel portal, leading to September 3 1940, Wales, where peculiar children of the enigmatic Miss Peregrine resides.

Jacob Portman spent much of his childhood listening to his grandfather talk about this orphanage that he grew up in, and the stories of his friends there, but they sound too fantastical to be true, and as he gets older, he becomes skeptical of what he takes to be tall tales thought up to entertain him, or just the ramblings of a deteriorating mind. It is only when tragedy strikes that Jacob finds he needs to go to the island where the orphanage is to find out more about his grandfather's past, and the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. While the action that follows forms the "meat" of the book, what moved me especially was the evolving relationship between Jacob and his grandfather, captured so succinctly yet vividly in the first part of the book, that made Jacob's determination to unravel his grandfather's past both believable and poignant.

A terrifyingly exciting read. Targeted for the YA market, but Riggs's creative imagination and writing makes this novel mighty fine for older adults as well.


Then There Were Five
Then There Were Five
by Elizabeth Enright
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up, 1 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Then There Were Five (Paperback)
The 3rd of the Melendy quartet sees the children happily settled into their house in the country, the Four-Storey Mistake. Their days as city kids are long behind them and they are enjoying their summer swimming in the brook, building dams, fishing, and traipsing through the woods. As is evident in the earlier two books, the reality of the war lurks in the background, and in this instalment, Enright makes clearer that Father works in Washington in a top secret job related to the war, which takes him away from the family for much of the time. Cuffy, the housekeeper and surrogate mother-figure, takes a leave of absence to nurse an ailing relative in Ithaca, and the children take on more responsibility managing the household while getting into scrapes and mishaps.

Together with the new experience of taking care of themselves, with nary an adult in sight, except for Willy Sloper, the handyman who lives with them, and kindly Mr Titus, Enright also introduces Mark, an orphan in the neighbourhood, who is abused by his grown cousin into the children's life, and the children find ways and means to make life better for him. There is a sense that Enright is trying to make this a more mature book than the previous novels. Shady characters like the Delcaey brothers, and the downright sinister Waldermar Crown are atypical characters for the series so far, and they lurk at the margins of the otherwise rosy setting.

The Melendys are a delight to be with, and Enright captures their characters well that they are each of them as distinctive and real as children we've known and grown up with. You might even spot a hint of the old you in one or two of them, if you look hard enough.


Then There Were Five (Melendy Quartet) by Enright, Elizabeth (2008) Paperback
Then There Were Five (Melendy Quartet) by Enright, Elizabeth (2008) Paperback
by Elizabeth Enright
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Growing Up, 1 Jan. 2015
The 3rd of the Melendy quartet sees the children happily settled into their house in the country, the Four-Storey Mistake. Their days as city kids are long behind them and they are enjoying their summer swimming in the brook, building dams, fishing, and traipsing through the woods. As is evident in the earlier two books, the reality of the war lurks in the background, and in this instalment, Enright makes clearer that Father works in Washington in a top secret job related to the war, which takes him away from the family for much of the time. Cuffy, the housekeeper and surrogate mother-figure, takes a leave of absence to nurse an ailing relative in Ithaca, and the children take on more responsibility managing the household while getting into scrapes and mishaps.

Together with the new experience of taking care of themselves, with nary an adult in sight, except for Willy Sloper, the handyman who lives with them, and kindly Mr Titus, Enright also introduces Mark, an orphan in the neighbourhood, who is abused by his grown cousin into the children's life, and the children find ways and means to make life better for him. There is a sense that Enright is trying to make this a more mature book than the previous novels. Shady characters like the Delcaey brothers, and the downright sinister Waldermar Crown are atypical characters for the series so far, and they lurk at the margins of the otherwise rosy setting.

The Melendys are a delight to be with, and Enright captures their characters well that they are each of them as distinctive and real as children we've known and grown up with. You might even spot a hint of the old you in one or two of them, if you look hard enough.


The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master's Son
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A North Korean John Doe, 1 Jan. 2015
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is amazingly multi-layered and epic in proportions without spanning generations and involving whole dynasties but rather centring on one (or arguably two characters) in a non-linear bildungsroman of sorts.

Jun Do (John Doe?) is the titular character, with an indeterminate parentage - is he or isn't he the orphanage director's son (itself a misnomer), or is it a deliberate mythologising of his origins as a way of setting himself apart from the other orphans, by imagining his bond to the orphan master, and conjuring up the glamorous image of a mother so beautiful and talented as a singer that she is spirited away to Pyongyang? That Jun Do might have a tendency to project himself into a larger-than-life personality paves the way for his incarnations as a military trainee in zero-light combat, a kidnapper of Japanese citizens off beaches, and an interpreter of coded transmissions onboard a fishing vessel, the Junma, before being sent on a political mission to Texas, and all this in the increasingly fantastical first part.

The second part is titled "The Confessions of Commander Ga" and here is where the narrative makes a decisive split from realism altogether and what follows is firmly in magic realism mode. Kim Jong-il, or a version of him, enters the narrative, and we learn from the narrator, or narrators (one of whom we assume is Jun Do, or is he, really?) that Jun Do impersonates the real Commander Ga (an enemy of the Dear Leader) after the latter is captured. The narrative toggles between the propagandist broadcasts of the developing love story between Jun Do and Sun Moon, prized actress of state-sanctioned movies and wife of Commander Ga, the account of the narrator-interrogator in the underground prisons, and Jun Do/'Commander Ga'. The accounts begin to converge but it comes no nearer to a clear picture of what actually happens - the reader can only infer from what is revealed at various junctures by one account and link it back or forward to another narrative. It is the kind of intellectual exercise a writer like David Mitchell (who firmly sang his praises on the cover of my paperback) dabbles in with finesse. Johnson, too, excels at this, and his mix of fact, fiction and pure fantastical imagination, gives this beguiling dystopian tale a decidedly sinister tone because of its horrifying (even farcical) yet undeniably realistic setting.

A tour de force.


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