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Alfred J. Kwak

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My Mother's Lover (The Swiss List)
My Mother's Lover (The Swiss List)
by Urs Widmer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Super rich, momentous novella, 27 May 2015
Powerfully written, colorful and lyrical novella describing an unrequited love story, contrasting deep poverty with stolidly guarded-wealth and status, and highlighting an early Swiss passion for nascent 20th century classical music. It is also a tribute to mother Clara and her beloved Edwin. It covers many decades. It is situated before and after 1929 and in the here and now in Switzerland and Italy, with the historical founding father of mother Clara’s family a stowaway from Abyssinia. In 1929, rich family's fortunes evaporated or halved in value, but the Swiss have always had - in good times and bad - plenty of business acumen and management skills.
The action hurtles along at breakneck speed, and I would be a spoiler if I went into further detail. Awesome powers of description. Cameo appearances of e.g. Béla Bartók and Benito Mussolini. Wonderful sketches of the Swiss and how they survived WW II. But the mother is the quirky, borderline hero of this fable about lions and dogs. This fabulous tribute is written by her only son. What about the father? He is mentioned only once in this tale, but Urs Widmer (1938-2014) of whose existence I was unaware until a few days ago, made him the subject of his next novella, “My Father’s Book”.
What a writer to create so much excitement, richness and enjoyment in so few pages! Reading groups will also enjoy discussing mother Clara’s life and times.


Indignation
Indignation
by Philip Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Sensitive masterpiece about a forgotten era, 26 May 2015
This review is from: Indignation (Paperback)
Late 19th and early 20th Jewish immigrants in the US worked long hours in physical jobs, hoping their children would do better thanks to education. This book is about the years 1950-1952 during the Korean War. From a young age Marcus Messner (MM) is a model son who helps his parents run a kosher butchery in Newark, NJ. He graduates with straight A’s from high school and helps his father in the shop until his departure to a nearby college. The signs were already there, but once MM has moved out his father is developing ever more irritating and intrusive bouts of anger at the world around him and anxiety about his only son's safety.
MM always has Korea on his mind: if he flunks he will be drafted and killed. Better to graduate with top marks and become an officer and improve his chance of survival. But his father’s frantic behavior prompts MM to move to a mediocre college in Ohio, where he does not always deal smartly with a series of new challenges and problems. Only two of the 15+ fraternities accept Jews, but he refuses to join the only Jewish one on campus, suspecting (rightly) his meddling father asked them to recruit him. When he joins later on, he will come to regret his decision…
Philip Roth became world famous with “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969) and is today an institution among American literary writers. This short novel is often funny, often sad, always moving and a pleasure to read. Readers have to find out for themselves how MM will solve his different problems. Roth has written a domestic American history of an almost forgotten war. To recreate the atmosphere of the time, create a tense plot and a range of believable characters is a great achievement.


Suite Francaise
Suite Francaise
by Irène Némirovsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome is an understatement, 21 May 2015
This review is from: Suite Francaise (Paperback)
This is one of the most devastating works of fiction I have ever read. I was not aware of its existence until reading the introduction to her novel "The Courilov Affaire", which judged it Irène Némirovsky’s (IN) final masterpiece, only recently discovered and first published in France in 2004. Where it soon and conveniently won a prestigious posthumous award.
It has five parts.
(1) It starts with an introduction about IN's short life and many works. She was murdered in Auschwitz as a 39-year old mother of two and well-known author of at least 10 published books in France [and another eight published during WW II under assumed names or post WW II, under her real name, with "Suite Française" the final one]. About how a suitcase full of their mother's handwritten draft books was saved by her small, fugitive daughters for posterity during WW II. About their reluctance to read what was inside the final series of notebooks and not to press for early publication. Shiver about Irène's heartless mother, who survived the war in luxury in Nice and passed away in 1989, aged 102.

(2) Her last two books were an account ("Storm in June") of the massive French panic following the German invasion in June 1940, whilst in a novel entitled "Dolce" some of the characters from “Storm...” re-appear in 1941. In these books IN's primary hatred is not directed at the Germans, but at France’s elite: bankers, famed authors, intellectuals and many of its army officers fled in cars laden with family treasures, slowed down by crowds of poor civilians also heading south, on foot. After the armistice, this elite returned to Paris to collaborate with the new masters of France. From her rural abode just short of the demarcation line between occupied and free France, IN describes examples of rural French collaboration.

(3) The fourth part of this book covers her diary notes about how to go on with her planned five-part, 1000-page novel and how to save her life and children's if external threats come closer. She keeps a cool head throughout, planning for her daughters' survival, while writing on and on, often outside in dense forests.

(4) Her growing fears are reflected in the next part, with a collection of her notes about the disaster of being born Jewish and Russian and having had to live as a stateless person in France since 1920. These notes begin in 1936 [ IN's notes end in July 1942, captured by French police and murdered weeks later in Auschwitz]. They end on 29 August 1945, her fate still unknown, but including heartrending correspondence from 1942 onwards by her husband to IN's publishers and any other French notables who might be able to track down Irène Némirovsky's whereabouts and reverse her fate. But he too was soon captured and murdered in Auschwitz.

(5) Part 5 contains footnotes naming the people who tried to save her, or had the power to do so.
So, of the five planned books with 1,000 pages, only two were completed. Irène's oldest daughter Dénise played a large part in safeguarding the crucial suitcase with her mother's manuscripts. Much later, she transcribed, then typed out, her final account written in minuscule handwriting [due to shortage of paper] of a shameful episode in French history.


An Event in Autumn (Kurt Wallander 11)
An Event in Autumn (Kurt Wallander 11)
by Henning Mankell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Closure, 7 May 2015
This novella about Kurt Wallander (KW) is significant in two respects. First, time-wise it fits into the Wallander series just ahead of “Troubled Man”, KW’s final case during which his struggle with Alzheimer became apparent. Here, KW shows signs of forgetfulness of the common kind, not really suggestive of dementia, but added together, a case can be made. KW’s thoughts are also more than ever occupied with the past and the future. He is unhappy with the now and frets about past mistakes, always in the personal domain, never as a professional. Looking forward, he dreads retirement without a job, real friends and a warm female companion as his father had, but surely with a dog and hopefully in a cottage with a view of the sea. Inspecting a promising, vacant property by himself, he makes a horrible discovery…
Secondly, this slim volume contains a short afterword by Henning Mankell about his novella’s publishing history and another 14-page piece on how the series started and ended, and what happened in between. Impressive. Otherwise, a perfectly written police procedural of a case without precedent or record. Two key informants live where KW is determined not to end his days. Not to be missed by fans and reading clubs.


Black Sheep
Black Sheep
by Susan Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Of darkness and light, 7 May 2015
This review is from: Black Sheep (Paperback)
Of darkness and light

“Black Sheep” is about honour and disgrace in a small, isolated pre-WW II British coal-mining community. Its overcrowded terraces house miners on changing shifts and their hard-working wives, facing many tasks. No work alternatives for school leavers (14+), early marriage for girls. The novella’s focus is the Howker family of three miners, daughter Rose and kid brother Ted. Home worked like a machine when Ted was small.
But at 14, Ted decides not to go down into the pit of darkness with his classmates. Instead, he chooses for an outdoor life of light and open skies with a view on the world below, looking after hundreds of sheep. He was not the first to break with tradition: his silent, oldest brother Arthur gave up mining after an injury and one day disappeared forever…
Have read, enjoyed and reviewed five Susan Hill novellas and always felt her work had been rushed into print. But “Black Sheep” is a perfectly paced and a truly searing family drama. It contains notable characters such as work-shy, God-fearing grandpa Reuben, struggling mother Evie, nasty son-in-law Charlie, and of course, lovely Rose and Ted himself. Sad story, sad ending. Well written.
Perfect for reading clubs to discuss e.g. miners and their culture, then and now, or past and present relevance of capital punishment.


Hanging Hill
Hanging Hill
by Mo Hayder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Ingeneous, emotional, thrilling, 2 May 2015
This review is from: Hanging Hill (Paperback)
Highly addictive thriller about first one, then several murders and a psychological portrait of two sisters who have had little or no contact for 25 years. Zoë (36) is a police inspector, Sally (35) a cleaner, when a 16-year old girl is found murdered in the ancient English town of Bath. Her killer used her lipstick to write a message on her body. Sally's daughter Molly knew her from school. But she and her friends were unhelpful during police investigations. They were hiding something, even after one of them was arrested as a suspect.
“Hanging Hill” has several layers, like parenting a teenager while divorced and poor, proving one's professional competence or trusting new partners. As a police procedural this reader rates it 3 or 4/10: when Zoë's doubts about the first murder investigation are ignored by her colleagues, she concludes the team has developed tunnel vision. She goes solo, keeps her findings to herself, powers on and discovers linkages to the world of porn production and distribution. Meanwhile, her divorced and heavily-indebted sister Sally has been promoted from cleaner to housekeeper in the grossly-designed and -decorated mansion of David Goldrab, a porn king who made his initial fortune in Kosovo. He is the reason for the sisters to meet again...
As a psychological novel this thriller rates 7 or 8/10. The sisters' life histories are intriguing. But during the police investigations, both Zoë and Sally often act on the basis of false assumptions, making poor decisions and bad choices. What makes this really a thriller are the risky break-ins and privacy invasions by the sisters, performed quite independently and Mo Hayder's awesome powers of describing moods and fears. This reader is currently engrossed and over halfway into "Tokyo", MH's third book, which is an absolutely stunning novel, confirming MH's energy and ability to fuse facts, dreams and ideas into stories with impact. This, her eighth novel is a thriller that twists and turns to a chilling surprise finish.


Pig Island
Pig Island
by Mo Hayder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Scary, troubled, ironic, 1 May 2015
This review is from: Pig Island (Paperback)
Some readers love thrillers about weird sects causing mayhem: in "Before the Frost", Henning Mankell's culprit was a survivor of the mass suicide (900+ dead) in Guyana led by Jim Jones in 1979. The culprit in "Pig Island" is Malachi Dove, a Brit with a history of preaching against the science of medicine in the desert states of the US. His nemesis is UK freelance journalist Joe Oakes (JO), who exposes false priests and other humbug worldwide. At age 18, Joe's cousin Finn lost his mother through cancer; she had sold her house to join MD's sect in the US, soon to return and die. Joe and Finn rush to the US and using the alias of "Joe Finn" they exposed MD as a total fraud. MD swore eternal vengeance to Joe Finn...
Two decades on JO learns that MD purchased Pig Island in Scotland some 20 years ago and lives there with 30-odd followers. His hunting instincts kick in and he secures an invitation to the commune posing as a PR consultant. And off they go, cash-strapped JO (38) and his unhappy wife of 5 years, snooty, class conscious Lexie, newly unemployed. What happens once the troubled couple has settled into a terrible, isolated bungalow, is for readers to learn. A few hints: JO needs 3 weeks to recover from his "official visit". After surviving a second, clandestine visit to Pig Island, he warns Lexie at 4 a.m. to prepare for instant flight. In what follows, Joe is constantly aware of the failed preacher, false prophet, intent on exacting his promised revenge, breathing down his neck, watching him...

I was much impressed by Mo's third novel "Tokyo" which showed her versatility. In this fourth novel she uses irony, makes fun of people, institutions and procedures, and shows her awesome powers of description and instilling fear. The many chapters written by Joe and Lexie exude very basic male and female dreams and motivations. Finally, readers beware, I may be wrong, but is this novel not also a spoof about Scotland and all it stands for? Finally, Mo Hayder has an uncanny talent for turning events upside down in her final book chapters.


Incinerator (Crusher)
Incinerator (Crusher)
by Niall Leonard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.44

4.0 out of 5 stars Juvenile British action hero, 28 April 2015
This review is from: Incinerator (Crusher) (Hardcover)
Eventful sequel to “Crusher”, a thriller I missed, in which Finn Maguire (FM, now 17) lost both his parents. Early chapters of “Incinerator” often hark back to this drama, because the law long suspected FM of his dad’s brutal killing. I admit that the many flashbacks made me very curious about “Crusher”, with Finn challenging London’s gangland for answers, and prevailing...
This volume portrays FM as dyslectic but quite smart and endowed (by nature and through relentless training) with a powerful physique and great endurance. He is also a promising boxer owning his own gym, advance-paid for by the promise of his forthcoming inheritance. When his lawyer absconds with his money, FM faces a black hole. Plus deep shame for failing to protect his poor and elderly Caribbean trainer and business partner Delroy from all his. Now Finn and Delroy face severe sanctions from a powerful London loan shark... How will Finn extricate himself from his many problems?
This genre of thriller is about fate striking innocent people, who react as best as they can against huge odds, which readers should enjoy best themselves.
Otherwise, Finn’s creator is a successful screenwriter. Why he wrote about Finn’s struggles in only 12 long chapters/322 pages is a mystery: with ever more people preferring their smart phone for solace and entertainment, many crime writers have given in to today’s shorter attention spans. Fast-paced thrillers with 8 or even 6-page chapters are the result.
Finally, “Incinerator” is marketed to the general public, not to urban juveniles not in school, work or training. The author’s own language use, choice of hero and realistic descriptions of miserable situations, suggests otherwise. And why not? Highly entertaining and likeable page turner.


Wittgenstein Jr.
Wittgenstein Jr.
by Lars Iyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

3.0 out of 5 stars Confusing tribute to the real one, 20 April 2015
This review is from: Wittgenstein Jr. (Hardcover)
What, a novel? This is easily the book with the most question marks I have ever read. Real novelists use question marks sparingly. Its lay-out often resembles a drama script or a volume of poetry. Leaving lots of blank space on each page is also rare among novelists: green one's like Garcia Marquez (GM) in “Autumn of the Patriarch” and Javier Marias (JM) saved scores of trees by filling every available space on a page by ignoring the full stop (GM) or like JM, writing solid blocks of text, rarely indented. Therefore, Lars Iyer (LI)) is neither a real novelist nor an eco-friendly writer. There is logic (Logik) for you...
This book, which is not a novel, records the (lack of) interaction between a new Cambridge philosophy lecturer, quickly nicknamed Wittgenstein (W) and his rapidly dwindling student audience. Twelve remain, who do not take notes because they are asked questions only. They are not properly lectured or tutored, in class or individually in W’s rooms or during their many outdoor walks. W’s students are baffled by his many questions about thought, logic (Logik!) and philosophy, becoming confused and indifferent as the course progresses.
Do they write papers or read for exams? Or is just listening to W’s hundreds of assertions and counter-assertions, tonnes of rhetorical questions and endless aphorisms, his paranoia about Cambridge dons, his explanations about his brilliant mathematician brother’s suicide at 20, his rants about the Flood that will wipe Cambridge away and Noah’s Ark landing on a mountain top and much, much else, enough to secure a degree?
The multicultural 12 non-apostles/disciples appear immune to W's search for logic, pure reason and philosophy. Some rather go for sex and rock & roll, new drugs and near-fatal alcoholic mixtures. Few understand or care for W’s warnings, forecasts and judgements about everything, except Peters, the farm boy student and part narrator... This book (never a novel) exudes occasional spurts of superior knowledge, but is very repetitious and lacks flow. It failed my own key criterion: “what’s on the next page?”. Iyer is good stylist, sometimes an acrobat with language, but he never made me smile or laugh aloud.


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 with 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.


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