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Alfred J. Kwak

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Barracuda
Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars The great Australian novel?, 17 April 2015
This review is from: Barracuda (Paperback)
Sprawling, very eventful and often raw and shocking novel about relentless ambition and fear of failure. Also full of adolescent emotions like jealousy of richer class mates, shame of one’s parents and emerging, passionate or protective feelings about certain boys he meets when given the chance to attend an elite secondary school on the strength of his swimming talent. Time wise the novel switches constantly and readers are given searing accounts of the formative events and incidents during different phases in the life of Daniel Kelly (DK), never chronologically, always via flashbacks of a younger DK by an older version of him. By following DK in this way from age 15 to 30, Christos Tziolkas (CT) has composed a literary thriller without a murder. But the threat of murder is ever present throughout the book...
‘Barracuda’ is situated mainly in Melbourne, Australia, with intermezzos in Japan, Scotland and Hong Kong. CT describes Australia as a lonely continent crazy about sport because it doesn’t excel in much else. And as a former British colony where racism, xenophobia and class consciousness thrive as never before. DK’s dad is a long-distance trucker, his mother a hairdresser, therefore working class. At his new school DK feels shunned, excluded, but he continues to rise for early training practise at 4.30 am. His mum helps him in every possible way to accomplish his ultimate goal: winning gold for Australia in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But fate rules otherwise and it transforms Danny into Dan, a quite different person. Or not?
Tziolkas is an excellent writer. His occasionally shocking ‘The Slap’ has sold 1.2 m copies worldwide. This book may possibly attract fewer buyers/readers: (1) Domestic readers may take issue at his highly polemic portrayal of Australia, a rainbow nation of people with roots elsewhere. (2) Profane language use and descriptions of gay lovemaking may deter readers and libraries. (3) Few readers are likely to recommend it to friends and relatives, because of DK’s rather hateful personality and character.The way he turns on his father late in the book, is unforgivable and evil.
This novel is brimming with ideas and feelings about love and hate, shame and remorse, taking charge or letting it all go. Kept me off the streets for a week. Almost a true masterpiece.


Habit
Habit
by Stephen McGeagh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars New twist to an ancient taboo, 8 April 2015
This review is from: Habit (Paperback)
The first 100 pages are full of morose, sometimes irritated descriptions in the I-form on the bleak lives of a number of characters in Manchester, UK, permanently on the dole like narrator Michael or doing poorly-paid work as his sister Manda. Background percolates slowly down, with Michael living with Dig, wearing black hoodies and bad at holding his drink (poor eater). Manda has scary mental episodes (their Mum’s were worse). They look after each other by phone and in person as best as they can.
By page 101, it has already happened, slowly but surely: Michael’s enticement, then recruitment by the girl Lee, who looks 12, into a new, darkening world. It concerns a historically and ethnographically well-documented worldwide taboo practice that is rarely breached nowadays. Practitioners caught today are judged criminally insane. But the massage parlour into which Lee lures Michael to become doorman, is far from lunatic. It is organised like any franchise, with a front and back office, staffed competently by devoted people.
Amazon reviewers praised SMG for his realistic portrayal of Manchester and/or for sticking to his guns as a debutant. I cannot judge the first, but fully endorse the second claim that SMG dances to his own drumbeat. Morality is absent in readers reviews. To succeed as a debut writer is hard. Hope his next book is as focused as this, which has given another, intriguing twist to a long-established literary and thriller sub genre.
A second reading enhances the books initial impact. Given its length, not its content, well suited for reading clubs. Because what exactly happened and what does the end and the title mean?


Personal (Jack Reacher 19)
Personal (Jack Reacher 19)
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Answered prayers, 1 April 2015
Publication of a new Jack Reacher (JR) is a moment of bliss and enjoyment extending for days for his many fans (m/f) worldwide. Always found his adventures in remote parts of the US less engaging than those in urban settings, but the rapid succession of the former helped slow down the aging of JR, who is still a super fit schemer and bruiser, aged 54. This one promises to be one of Lee Child’s best, his best according to one quote, because at last, finally, etc., JR is deployed abroad again. Abroad is where JR grew up on Army bases and where he spent a large part of his MP-career.
This book takes him to Paris and London. Why? A world-class sniper took a shot at the French president from 1.300 meters. A new type of glass stopped the bullet. The event caused near panic is all intelligence services of the G-8, whose leaders meet in London in three weeks. Was the Paris event an audition? How many people worldwide can shoot so accurately? The combined G-8 intelligence services quickly provide 25 names, with 21 assuredly not having been in France or Paris. One of the four remaining snipers is American.
JR remembers him because he arrested him long ago in Colombia. Do 15 years of yoga and meditation in prison weaken or strengthen a sniper’s accuracy and hatred about his captor? Deep plot with many cliff hangers. Are the Brits better than the Yanks at penetrating each other’s most secret communications? Are some criminal gangs in Britain operating above the law? Can JR and his 28-years old girl partner (a CIA novice on tranquilizers) prevent a sniper, perhaps two of them, from turning a G-8 summit into a bloodbath?
Finally, a comment on an assertion on p.1 and repeated later, saying that you can say goodbye to the army but that the army will not. Not ever, not completely. Lee Child/Jack Reacher must have had officers with unique skills in mind, not the >1 million sometimes badly traumatised US veteran troops from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are poorly looked after by their government...


By Neil White - Beyond Evil
By Neil White - Beyond Evil
by Neil White
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Death of a Lotto Winner, 20 Mar. 2015
Billy Privett was a nobody until he won a small fortune by getting six figures right. The tabloids, aware that hated people sell newspapers, keenly follow his conspicuous spending and partying sprees. One night, acting on a neighbour’s complaint, Oulton police visits Billy’s sprawling home to find it empty, except for a naked, dead girl in his swimming pool. She is pulled out by DI Sheldon Brown (well into his 40s), a life-changing experience in view of his subsequent failure to find a motive or a killer. He is soon taken off the case. A team from Manchester makes no progress either.
Over a year later, Billy himself is found tortured and murdered, with the skin of his face sent separately to the local newspaper. Sheldon is appointed leader of the investigation, much to the surprise of his colleagues. Since his wife deserted him, he has been looking shabby and insecure. Will he manage?
Sheldon’s counterpoint is the struggling, hard-drinking small town defence lawyer Charlie Barker (39). His business partner Amalia defended Billy until his murder and she was perturbed by the news. There is also an occasional change of scene with a man called John who joined an anarchistic group, who slowly becomes alarmed by its leader Henry’s plans. Separately, there is also talk of men in black, seen in various places, stalking and pursuing the main protagonists. And of some sort of top-level police compliance... Will all this be wrapped up?
Neil White, a criminal defence lawyer himself, presents a heady mix of human frailty in 67 chapters with many cliff-hangers. Found its length and weird plot quite challenging. Great book for people serving lengthy stays abroad to read and re-read and discover more and more about what really happened.


The Death Collector
The Death Collector
by Neil White
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

4.0 out of 5 stars Many cliffhangers, 4 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Death Collector (Hardcover)
Neil White (NW), lawyer and crime writer, shows diesel qualities of first warming up, then moving on and on. The warming-up took over 100 pages and many brief chapters to familiarise readers with a rich cast of characters in crime- and financial crisis-ridden Manchester (UK). Its prime movers are brothers Joe and Sam Parker, whose sister Ellie was murdered some 16 years ago. Her killer was never found. There is also a troublesome 14-year old kid sister. Her brothers are much older: Joe (34, single) is a defence lawyer struggling to keep his job for not bring in enough money. Sam (married, 2 children) rose from years in Financial Crimes to the Murder Squad. Also in the "diesel" phase, intimations of poor police work in a new murder case, as well as in an old case by a mother's constant campaigning for her son's retrial.
This thriller is well-paced with 65 brief chapters, constantly switching between policemen and lawyers and other key characters. Most scarily, it returns regularly to the home, then to the cellar of a serial killer and the persons he keeps there, dead and alive... NW is not the first crime writer dealing with serial killers, rogue policemen in high places and personal loss/guilt as a driving force for breaking rules and procedures in the pursuit of justice. However, compared to the greats (Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin) NW has done much less to create an authentic Manchester atmosphere and has opted for a mid-Atlantic style.
This was my introduction to NW. I will read more of his books. He is superbly able to create tension and increase it over hundreds of pages. Not totally brilliant, but highly competent and thrilling.


Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
by Teju Cole
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.25

4.0 out of 5 stars Return to a hard place, 4 Mar. 2015
Teju Cole (TC) ’s book “Open City” about a Nigerian psychiatrist-in-training in New York was met with critical acclaim. This is a revised edition of a book first published in Nigeria in 2007. It is about the author’s month-long stay in Nigeria, meeting with old friends and relatives after some 15 years in the US. As a son of a long-deceased Nigerian father and long-departed American mother, returning to his birthplace Lagos was bound to be dramatic.
As in “Open City”, TC is mostly a loner given to contemplative walkabouts. But Lagos is fraught with dangers like home invasions, street robberies, car and truck hijackings, so just walking about safely requires applying the right body language. Many things astound him: Lagos' general decay, businesses and the rich relying on generators in an oil-rich, but dirt-poor country, the criminal use of internet cafés, its all-pervading graft and corruption, and its total indifference to its history. He cannot understand why Nigerians are said to be the happiest people of the world
TC meeting with some of his old friends again was not very uplifting either. He views the success of Pentecostal churches as another unwelcome import: after second-hand cars, -clothes, -airplanes, TC cringes about the appeal and success of its second-hand religious message. Is there nothing positive to report about Nigeria? TC did find a few rays of hope, but those are for other readers to discover. Otherwise, sobering, erudite re music and literature and beautifully written.
GRANTA 92 (Winter 2005) included an extract from a then fortthcoming novel called "Legacies" by Nigerian author Adewale Maja-Pearce (AM-P). I only read the preview, but have noted some parallels with TC: Lagos, white mothers, boarding schools, long years abroad, poor first impressions upon return. Shocked by attitudes of the well-off towards the poor and infirm, AM-P writes, "I couldn't see what an uneducated cripple was to do for themselves in such a society but I was yet to appreciate the remorseless logic of poverty: your misfortune is your own fault and possibly a sin."
Another congruence.


Granta: The Unbearable Peace 35 (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)
Granta: The Unbearable Peace 35 (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)
by Bill Buford
Edition: Single Issue Magazine

3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven edition with highlights, 26 Feb. 2015
This spring 1991 edition highlights the curious mountain state of Switzerland, a diverse confederation with a unique form of direct democracy. Not a member of the UN, peaceful for hundreds of years, it has one of the largest standing armies in the world proportional to its population. The issue begins with John Le Carre (JLC)’s solid 66-page journalistic reconstruction of Switzerland’s biggest spy scandal, the case against Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaire, accused of passing military secrets to successive Soviet military attaches posted in Bern. In 1977 he was sentenced to 18 years and served 12. After his release, aged 80, he welcomes JLC to his tiny flat to put the record straight. Despite much of the trial’s evidence shrouded in secrecy, JLC (a former GB-spy in Bern) reviewed Jeanmaire’s case anew. His conclusions and suspicions are startling and painful for the Swiss intelligence community and its judiciary.
More about the Swiss army thanks to venerable author Max Frisch, who debuted in 1940. His rhetorical dialogue with grandson Jonas was written in support of the YES vote ahead of a referendum on abolishing the Swiss army. It contains strong evidence about faulty army strategy in case of war and invasion, and startling WWII examples of the negative aspects of neutrality: hosting a miserly 9.600 refugees, selling arms to all sides, allowing goods and troops from Germany to cross by train to Italy, and worse. [A more sympathetic portrayal of the Swiss army is John McPhee’s “La Place de la Concorde Suisse” from 1983, which despite its ill-chosen French title, is remains in print in English.]
Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s speech to Vaclav Havel, John Berger’s musings on human nature in Basel’s zoo and Alex Kayser’s intriguing photo-essay on bankers and soldiers complete the Swiss section of GRANTA 35. Finally, who might buy this old issue? JLC has thousands of followers worldwide owning all or most of his novels. Many may be unaware of “The unbearable peace”. And because Max Frisch’s piece still holds relevance today.


The Glasgow Coma Scale
The Glasgow Coma Scale
by Neil Stewart
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult read, 24 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Glasgow Coma Scale (Paperback)
This debut novel is the curious tale about Englishwoman Lynne and Scotsman Angus (43), once pupil and teacher at Glasgow’s Art Academy. Whilst Lynne was in love with him, Angus told her she had no talent. They even kissed, but just once. Five years later, Lynne, having just been dumped by Raymond, gives some money to a street beggar and sees it is Angus. And takes him home…
[Angus once was a painter with one exhibition catalogue and mixed reviews to his name, always a fierce critic of everything and everyone, before being sacked for his constant negativism about his students’ work.] Angus is not likeable. Nor is Lynne, now manager of a dubious call centre, an insecure control freak and a clinging type of person for whoever breaks through to her. Found both Angus and Lynne complex and manipulative, sharing a flat without touching. Brief cameo roles of some of Angus’ former street pals and Lynne’s tiny circle of contacts brighten the storyline. But will Angus beat ‘the six-week limit’ talked about by fellow homeless, i.e. people taking you in will throw you out again unless you have succeeded in divesting yourself of every speck of living rough?
My only complaint is the Scots dialect of Angus and others constantly interrupting and slowing down the novel’s flow. Why use dialect? To add authenticity and a warm Scottish nest smell to Angus, who is against Scottish independence? Neil Stewart’s use of dialect makes no sense. It makes it a parochial and hard to translate book. English readers from France, Spain or Germany are likely to give up soon. Otherwise, promising, challenging and instantly re-readable.


The Free
The Free
by Willy Vlautin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars In praise of good people, 18 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
How to review such a magnificent book? By referring to growing inequality in the US, now a land of limited opportunities for the poor-born? By saying it is anti-war and that the US government neglects its wrecked war survivors? Or as a companion book to Beverly Gologorsky’s “Stop Here” , also anti-war, describing the lives of five co-workers, their boss and their riends and relatives at a Long Island, NY diner? Some themes return in “The Free” where people also live from one pay check to another, face broken families, crippling medical bills despite insurance, drive old cars, work night shifts or two jobs to care for others... It also repeats her disgust about sending poorly-trained National Guard troops to Iraq.
Situated in a small town in the Northwest, its main characters are Leroy, Pauline and Freddy. Leroy does not speak a word in the novel, but his dreams and hallucinations in hospital-- inspired by his favourite reading matter, SF—are an integral part, chronologically and in italics. They concern an epic effort to save his girlfriend Jeannette from evil US armed forces and vigilantes right into Canada: after being wounded in Iraq, Leroy has spent seven years as a mute paraplegic in an institution. One night, he believed he could think normally again, but he panics (it cannot last!) and tries to kill himself.
He was found by night caretaker Freddy and rushed to hospital, where Freddy visits him every night before starting his shift. Freddy’s day shift is running a paint store. Readers must read his personal dramas, losses and dreams and sacrifices for themselves. Nurse Pauline is one of several checking up on Leroy repeatedly during her rounds. She has a great bedside manner with the sick and despairing, but is fiercely independent privately. Again, I refuse to be a spoiler.
Rich novel with many other engaging characters about true humanity and warmth in stressful times. Highly re-readable and perfect for reading groups. Highly recommended.


The Little Drummer Girl
The Little Drummer Girl
by John Le Carré
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Playing the lead in a 'fiction' in the Theatre of the Real, 14 Feb. 2015
This 1983 thriller deals with deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Europe with primitive bombs. Its builder leaves his signature, an extra loop of wiring. Who is he? He is surely European-based and highly mobile. Not a loner, but supported and protected by highly professional, local teams.
JLC describes how Israel's military usually responds and overrules its spies in case of a terrorist attack from across the border by simply targeting Palestinian refugee camps and buildings shielding suspects or their leaders from the air or sea.
But these new bomb attacks happen in Europe, beyond the military's reach. Thus, a seasoned spy master and WW II survivor named Kurtz, is reluctantly given the nod to start a search on European soil for the bomb maker and his helpers. One of them is suspected to be his student kid brother. How to catch a lion? By baiting him with a goat. Enters British activist actress Charlie (26). Observed and studied long before being recruited during a Greek holiday. But is recruitment the right word? How she is being prepared for her new role in the theater of the real is for readers to discover...
This remains JLC's longest, most densely-plotted, difficult and morally-challenging novel, requiring great concentration from readers, with his beautiful prose reaching lyrical levels when Charlie or Kurtz hold centre stage. It is also a passionate account of the deep mutual hatred and anger of Jews and Palestinians and their histories of persecution and enforced displacement.
Finally, very rich re ideas and spy trade craft, perfectly plotted with many minor characters (Helga, Picton, Long Al, etc.) deftly portrayed, whereas the more central and truly complicated characters are drawn with great compassion. Thrilling to the last page. Relevant to the present day. Truly awesome.


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