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J. Ang

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Undermajordomo Minor
Undermajordomo Minor
Price: £5.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Majorly Underwhelming, 28 July 2016
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Witty writing, which I came to expect from the author, after reading his raucously funny Booker-nominated "The Sister Brothers". This novel is just as funny and shocking, with DeWitt's trademark stomach-churning descriptions sprinkled judiciously in a few scenes, that had me recoiling from the graphic details.

The story starts off as a beguiling one which demands that the reader suspend belief and read it as one would a fable or a folk tale. Lucien Minor or Lucy as he is more commonly known, is something of a misfit in his village. After a bout of illness which his mother is sure he 'transferred' to his Father and caused the latter's death by some supernatural feat (and Lucy identifies as having been conjured by a shadowy figure in burlap), he jumps at the opportunity to leave the cursed house to take on the employ as an UnderMajor Domo (some kind of assistant butler, i gather) at the Castle Von Aux, in the service of a Baron no less. Along the way, he makes the unlikely acquaintance of a pair of train thieves, Memel and Mewe, and later the breathtakingly beautiful Klara, who would predictably become his love interest.

And so the tale unfolds, as it follows the (inconsistently) hapless Lucy in his adventures at the castle. The conversation is sometimes marked by quick and witty repartee, but at other times, lapsing into inconsequential slapstick comedy. The writing is sharp for the most part nonetheless, and for more than half the novel I was fully engaged, but I cannot help but feel that here is a wondrously talented writer who had all the ingredients for a great story at his disposal, who had unfortunately let it all sag from the sheer surfeit of shocking events he felt he needed to ply the reader with to keep the spectacle going.

One of the minor characters unwittingly summed up how I felt when the smoke from the climactic and eventually directionless events cleared near the end of the novel, though she was lamenting the state of the castle and its inhabitants: "It would seem to me, boy, that we are all of us getting smaller here.... We are emptying. Becoming empty.... We are draining. That's it. We are draining away, and soon we will be gone."

And with that the story collapsed on itself after the flurry of action, quit unable to sustain itself.

Tom's Midnight Garden
Tom's Midnight Garden
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected Friends, 23 July 2016
I wish I had discovered this gem when I was a child. What a progressive time travel novel for its time! It was first published in 1958 and won the Carnegie Medal, which recognises outstanding children's books.

Tom Long is sent to stay with his doting aunt Gwen and her husband Alan Kitson when his brother Peter develops measles. It looks set to be a boring summer without the company of his brother and Best Friend and a nice big yard and garden to play in, because the Kitsons live in an old house that has been divided into small flats. Determined to be miserable, Tom is enthralled by the only interesting object in the hall downstairs, an old grandfather's clock that is totally out of sync with real time. So when it chimes thirteen times after midnight, Tom is determined to creep downstairs to find out why, and that's where he stumbles into an adventure that he won't forget for the rest of his life.

Pearce's depiction of a lonely child who discovers an exciting secret place that the adults don't know about should resonate with children who experience similar bouts of loneliness and boredom, especially when they are sent to bed way before they are sleepy, and imagine all kinds of places they would much rather be, and new friends they would love to meet.

Without giving the plot away, I found Tom's unexpected friendship most endearing, and the time element which featured strongly in this novel gave it that poignant twist that stayed with me well after I read the last sentence.

Definitely recommended reading for those who are young and young at heart.

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Price: £3.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The House of Secrets, 20 July 2016
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This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
Waters applies her superior skills as a period writer to great effect once again in this romance thriller. Set in 1920s postwar Britain, Frances Wray, at 26, is a confirmed spinster of the middle class, managing her reduced circumstances with her widowed mother, having also lost two brothers in the war. She rents out part of the house to a young clerk class couple, the Barbers, in a bid to keep her and her mother's finances afloat.

Waters gets the setting, mood, speech and social concerns, all down pat, and it is with a start when one remembers that this novel was published as recently as 2014. This is clearly a woman's novel, and I mean that in no disparaging sense, because the main focus is on the two women. The friendship between Frances and Lilian Barber soon blossoms into something a lot more intimate, even as she gets more involved in the Barber's lives, while having an ambivalent relationship with Lenny, Lilian's husband.

It is to Waters's credit that her nuanced writing makes the transition between romance to thriller midway through the novel, while surprising, nonetheless smooth and completely believable. However, the psychological suspense that surrounds Lilian and Frances does get a little repetitive and long drawn, even though it was a good way of getting under the skin of her two female leads.

Not a perfect novel, but the exemplary prose sets it apart from the rest of pack.

Night (The Night Trilogy Book 1)
Night (The Night Trilogy Book 1)
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Lest We Forget, 5 July 2016
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Elie Wiesel's death spurred me to read this book which I have put off too long because I had been reluctant to confront the horrors I knew would spring from its pages. Having read it finally, I was hesitant to review it. How do you rate and review a book that not only details an individual’s suffering, but also acts as a historical document of a monstrous atrocity against an entire race of people? Perhaps one can only do that by approaching it as a literary work, because it wouldn’t be fair to put a value on someone else's personal experience.

This slim novella wastes not a single word or phrase to convey the horror of the events, and it is all the more gut-wrenching for Wiesel’s refusal to be maudlin about the subject matter even when he is right at the heart of it. 15-year-old Eliezer lives a relatively comfortable life in the town of Sighet in Transylvania. Eliezer studies the Kabbalah under the unofficial tutelage of Moshe the Beadle, so nicknamed for his caretaker role, but who is also not highly regarded in the community. So when he miraculously survives the expulsion of Hungarian Jews who are unable to prove their citizenship, and comes back to warn the townsfolk, they are slow to believe him. That proves to be their demise.

The situation quickly deteriorates, and the reader, together with Eliezer and his bewildered family, is swept from one human indignity to another, till it becomes difficult for Eliezer to keep his faith. His relationship with his father is most poignantly conveyed to us, though Wiesel never loses sight of the larger picture in his account, that encompasses all the tens of thousands of Jews who were wrenched out of their homes, then shipped like cattle, and tortured and killed as if their lives were worth less than those of animals.

The brevity of the book is one of its major strengths, because it hits hard with its immediacy and one is left reeling from the cruel acts it documented, made all the more unbelievable and difficult to stomach because it had all happened not so long ago. In Wiesel's Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, which is appended at the end of the book, he recounts what Eliezer had asked his father: “Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?” That is a question that has no answer, but the book that was borne out of these events is Wiesel’s recompense to the 15-year-old boy who lived these experiences and he accounts it to him thus: “I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices”.


Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy, Book 2)
Authority (The Southern Reach Trilogy, Book 2)
Price: £5.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Murky Mindscape, 3 July 2016
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In this second book of the trilogy about the elusive Area X, the attention turns from the 12th expedition that the first book covered, and focuses on its aftermath (or is it in its midst, because conventional time and space can no longer be held constant), as a secret operative, John Rodriguez or Control is sent in to replace the missing director, who is revealed the reader to have been one of the figures we met in Book 1 and at the same time investigate the Southern Reach Agency.

The biologist, who was the first-person protagonist in the first book, has "returned", and Control tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the expedition and its other members through her, but she is uncooperative. Control is also met with resistance from the assistant director, Grace, who resents what she perceives as his usurpation of directorship. But even within the "normal" office environs where he appears to form alliances with other personnel like the nervy Whitby and jaded head scientist Cheney, and the politicking surrounding his status as new boss and upstart, nothing is as it seems, and the psychological warfare he faces from his ambivalent subordinates takes on the shifty, otherworldly tint of Area X itself.

Compared (perhaps unfairly) to the first book, where the horrific events of the expedition had a certain immediacy, even though a lot of it was masterfully conveyed through implication, rather than merely explicated, VanderMeer does more of the same in a surehanded manner in Book 2, but the subject matter is less exciting, and there are less jump-out-of-your-skin moments.

Having said that, VanderMeer's way of giving shape to the nebulous in his text is admirable, and his narrative style engaging enough for me to want to find out what happens in the end. For example, the concept of "terroir" to describe the natural environment in which wine is produced, when applied to Area X as "the sum of the effects of a localized environment, inasmuch as they impact the qualities of a particular product", helps the reader make sense of its permeable, undefinable borders, and the way anything that goes in or out of it, will invariably become steeped with the qualities of the place.

Heavy-going. This second book undoubtedly felt like a heavy expository middle section that I had to wade through before the action resumes.

Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children
Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.78

4.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Enemy, 1 July 2016
The final book in this spectacular trilogy takes off in the London Underground, with sixteen-year-old Jacob battling wights and hollowgasts, but this time with greatly reduced forces. His group of peculiar children and Miss Peregrine, together with other ymbrynes, have been captured by the evil Caul. So it is up to Jacob, Emma the girl with flaming hands, and Addison, the talking dog, to rescue them.

Perhaps because of the reduced cast, the story is focused more squarely on Jacob, and his blossoming relationship with Emma, while he battles his greatest enemy, not the hollowgasts whom he has the special ability to control (if he could only harness it with some consistency), but himself. Wracked with doubt, this version of Jacob harks back to the first book where Jacob is introduced to us as a troubled teen, and it takes a little getting used to.

The challenges and heart-stopping moments Jacob and his gang face are no less exciting than the first two books, but the narrative loses some spark, especially in the dialogue, without the familiar voices and personalities of the other children. The haunting photographs that marked the first two novels still feature and weave themselves into the text well, though the novelty of this trademark device fades just a little. The humour that is sprinkled into the text in between and sometimes even in the midst of pivotal moments was sometimes rather slapstick, and I cannot remember if that was the case with the other two books, and if it did, why it didn't bother me like it did for this instalment.

Nonetheless this is one of the more consistent YA trilogies I have read, and I was sorry to say goodbye to the peculiar children when I read the last page.

No One Belongs Here More Than You
No One Belongs Here More Than You
Price: £4.53

4.0 out of 5 stars No One is Lonelier Than You, 17 Jun. 2016
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These short stories are eclectic in themes and styles, and yet, they work well together to form a moving yet unsettling organic whole.

All the characters share a certain vulnerability and isolation, and admirably or pathetically try to break out of their situations, as they unabashedly reach out for any kind of connection with a fellow human being, sometimes at the expense of their own dignity and well-being.

In the first story, “The Shared Patio”, a female tenant living upstairs tries to stake her claim on the patio with the unit downstairs by spending equal time as the tenants below do on it. It betrays her obsession with the couple, even as she rationalises why she would never be friends with the wife: “One reason Helena and I would never be close friends is that I am about half as tall as she. People tend to stick to their own size group because it’s easier on the neck. Unless they are romantically involved, in which case the size difference is sexy. It means I am willing to go the distance for you”.

In “Majesty”, a woman who teaches earthquake survival classes to children has erotic dreams about Prince William, and “carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so [she] would not lose any of it”. However, in the course of the day where reality seems as surreal as her dreams, she meets a woman who loses her dog, and she in some way becomes indirectly connected to its death. She wanders in and out of her thoughts and ponders her deepest fears she lives through in her dreams: “This pain, this dying, this is just normal. This is how life is. In fact, I realize, there never was an earthquake. Life is just this way, broken, and I am crazy to hope for something else”.

In the most moving story of the collection, “Something That Needs Nothing”, a teenager runs away from home with her best friend, Pip, and finds herself sinking further and further into destitution, and eventually total abandonment. Her extreme sense of loneliness and lack of anyone who cares for her shows as she reflects on how they made a surreptitious game of picking up stolen plywood left in the alley by Pip’s friend: “We were always getting away with something, which implied that someone was always watching us, which meant we were not alone in this world.”

There are many more stories with characters and situations that struck me and haunted me long after I read their last lines. What impressed me most was the very convincing way the author managed to describe an unconventional belief a character may have and explain it so logically, that I felt totally drawn into their story world and even their whole belief system, in empathy with them, as they struggle on with their everyday lives.

What Milo Saw
What Milo Saw
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars What We Cannot See, 5 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: What Milo Saw (Kindle Edition)
Milo Moon is 9 and suffers from a rare condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which means that his eye is like a pinhole with almost no peripheral vision, and which would only worsen until he eventually goes blind. His dad has run away with his secretary to Abu Dhabi and abandoned him, his mom Sandy, and Gran (who's his great grandmother), leaving behind a teacup pig, Hamlet, as a pet to keep Milo company. That's quite a lot for a little boy to take, but Milo is a special boy with a close affinity with 92-year-old Gran, whom he takes it upon himself to take care of.

When Gran is sent to an old folks' home, Milo suffers another blow. What ensues is a touching yet funny tale of a boy who is brave enough to fight for those he loves and make things better for unexpected friends like the old ladies at the home with a misnomer of a name, Forget Me Not, as well as Tripi, the Syrian cook at the home.

Narratives with children as focalisers are tricky, as there is always a danger of stereotyping or infantilising them, or making them sound too profound and worldly wise and therefore making them unrealistic characters. Virginia Macgregor had measured out the right mix in creating the character of Milo Moon, making him both a realistic and an easy character to like. For example, when he buckles Gran down for the move to the home, he tries to make the best of a bad situation, rationalising as he looked at the grey sky, pavements and trees in turn, as he cannot focus on them all at once: "People who saw everything at once must feel drowned by the world. All Milo had to do was to move his head and focus on something else and pretend the bad bits weren't there."

Definitely worth a read.

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Human Geography, 5 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Kindle Edition)
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Reading this novel a second time after almost 10 years, and the sense of awe it evoked then has not dimmed for me. The first time I read it, it was through a haze brought on by a bout of chicken pox. Drifting in and out of consciousness caused by medication, the surreal feel of the book practically unveiled a kaleidoscope of colours in my fevered mind and also made me especially empathetic to the illness of Adam Ewing, the protagonist of the “outermost” story – in the matryoskha doll narrative structure that critics have fallen over themselves identifying and ascribing all kinds of significance to.

Ostensibly 6 separate stories nested one within the other, the links that bind the stories are tenuous and the stories are so different in tone, setting, and place, that their dissonance seems especially jarring for their sharing space within the same book. The surreal feel of the two innermost stories, “An Orison of Sonmi~451” (set in a near-dystopian future Korea), and “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After” (set in a post-apocalyptic yet primal society in Hawaii), feels strangely disjointed from the other 4 stories, which are more ‘realist’ in feel. Even these latter 4 stories are starkly different in genre. There’s the historical fiction denoted by Adam Ewing’s framing story about 19th century slavery and his abolitionist awakening, the early modernist letters of the young nihilistic and opportunistic English musician Robert Frobisher in the employ as an amanuensis to a reclusive and sickly Belgian composer, the 70s mystery thriller style of “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”, where journalist Luisa Rey investigates a nuclear power plant and finds out life-threatening secrets to the comic modern day shenanigans of a small-time publisher Timothy Cavendish, who profits from his client’s murder scandal, finds his good fortune reversed when he is checked into an old folks’ home against his will.

If a common thread were to be found within this expansive and richly imaginative work, it would be the interconnectivity of people, as individuals and as groups, whether in tribes or nations, across time and space. And as a whole, the novel succeeds in telling us just that. However if there is one quibble I have, it’s the way it all draws to a close with Ewing’s sermonizing in the last few pages of the novel, as if Mitchell waned to make sure that the reader saw the sum of the parts he had so cleverly put together. It may be a personal preference, but I feel that having done so much already, less is more.

The Vegetarian: A Novel
The Vegetarian: A Novel
Price: £5.31

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Food of the Seoul, 28 May 2016
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A novel in three parts, almost separate short stories in their own right, connected by a central figure, Yeong-hye, a young woman, who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian. It is unconventional in Korea, but not an earth-shattering decision, except that it stems from a strange surrealistic dream, and causes Yeong-hye, already a taciturn and placid person, to retreat further into herself and wreak havoc in the the lives of people around her. Each of the three parts of the novel centres on one person she affects; her unimpressive and self-centred husband, her visual artist brother-in-law, and her sister, In-hye.

In each of the three parts, Han Kang creates different moods and effects, and they function like three different genres, all interlinked. The first story is more sinister, with a supernatural and almost psycho-thriller slant, while the second story is primarily erotic, exploring the idea of depravity and obsession, and the boundaries between art and social norms. The final story is more moving, as it explores the relationship between sisters, and examines the role and psyche of the caregiver.

In all three parts, Yeong-hye is the central figure, and yet she acts more like a cipher rather than protagonist, and we are never privy to her inner thoughts, except in the dream episodes, narrated in first person, but even these portions stand apart from the narrative, as if independent from Yeong-hye's own state of mind. What features prominently in the novel, besides the examination of the human/plant divide (which I felt tried to be allegorical in Yeong-hye's turn to vegetarianism, but did not successfully convince me), was the striking isolation of each of these characters, even though they all share familial ties. It was in the description of In-hye's bus journey up to the hospital to visit her sister, when the latter had all but destroyed her marriage, that summed up the crushing sense of loneliness that pervaded the novel: "She watches the streaks of rain lashing the window, with the untouched steadiness unique to those accustomed to solitude".

Kudos should be given to Deborah Smith for the lyrical flow of the text, which betrays none of the jarring syntax that sometimes feature in translated works. In many aspects, this novel reminded me of Haruki Murakami's works, especially in the way it unsettles the reader, and the detailed manner it describes the moment-by-moment actions of the characters.

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