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jfp2006 (PARIS/France)

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A Little Life
A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A pity: this had the makings of a classic, 16 Sept. 2016
This review is from: A Little Life (Paperback)
I’m still regretting that I couldn’t like A Little Life as much as I wanted to.

It had the makings of a great American novel about four friends in New York, each trying to create meaning in his life in his own way. There are indeed some great moments, some great observations about the ups and down of friendship as the years go by.

But A Little Life has two very important flaws. One of them has been abundantly commented on. It is the fact that Yanagihara has completely left the passage of time out of her equation. At the beginning of the novel the four friends are in their early twenties, and then there are flashbacks to their childhoods, most importantly that of Jude. And then the novel gradually moves forward into their middle years. But in a span of what must logically be at least forty years, nothing changes. There are no references to the bigger picture of life in America, no 9/11, no presidents, no race riots… just the same Manhattan streets, the same sophisticated Manhattan cafés and restaurants. Basically, the characters age and yet time doesn’t pass. That is surely a big, big flaw in any work of fiction.

Equally seriously, there is the problem of the relationship between Jude and Willem. Jude is the victim of years and years and years of the worst kinds of abuse – while Willem is a serial womanizer who seems to move on from one heterosexual relationship to the next in the same way in which he moves on from one movie role to the next. But then he suddenly enters into a gay relationship with his close friend Jude. Which for a long time, given Jude’s traumatising past, appears to be a celibate relationship. The plausibility of this beggars belief, and the debate about “having sex” is, in the end, absurd, given that the experience and meaning of “having sex” is so totally different for each of the two characters.

Despite my best intentions, I ended up skimming the last 200 or so of the 700+ pages. As another reviewer has pointed out, once we know what has been kept hidden about Jude’s past, there is not really anywhere for the novel to go.

There are novels which, in the end, seems like a waste of time, and the reader feels angry and/or cheated. A Little Life is not one of those, given its intelligent comments on the vagaries of friendship. The problem is, the implausible bits ultimately outweigh the worthwhile bits.

The Illuminations
The Illuminations
by Andrew O'Hagan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.58

4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but moving, 16 Sept. 2016
This review is from: The Illuminations (Paperback)
Anne Quirk is living in sheltered accommodation in Scotland, while her grandson, Luke Campbell, is a captain in the army, serving in Afghanistan. The novel initially juxtaposes their stories, and then deftly brings them together after Luke’s mission goes awry and he returns to the UK.
Anyone who has had a close relationship with a grandmother is likely to find The Illuminations very moving. While the evocation of soldiers soldiering on in Afghanistan was, I felt, rather tedious and protracted, the parts of the novel dealing with the grandmother/grandson relationship are very tenderly observed. Luke’s patience with his gran, whose mind is gradually fading, is very moving too.

Anne Quirk is something of a dark horse, and her past (Canada, New York, Scotland) is only gradually revealed. She could have been a brilliant photographer, we gradually infer – except that circumstances were against her. As such, she is one of “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life” (to quote the famous final line of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”).

There are many excellent observations in The Illuminations, and O’Hagan’s ear for spontaneous dialogue is spot-on. Unfortunately, the different strands of the novel never quite make up a satisfying whole, and the reader is left with the impression that O’Hagan perhaps tried to fit too much into one work.

by Hannah Rothschild
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.58

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Implausible at best – and ultimately absurd, 16 Sept. 2016
I suppose I should have known better than to plump for a novel whose chief back-cover plaudits are from the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and whose blurb ambiguously refers to a “dirty painting”…
The painting is in fact not in any way pornographic, as one might easily have thought – it just happens to be lying in a junk shop covered in dust… It is acquired rather impulsively by the novel’s main character, Annie McDee, and then the novel proceeds to deal with how a lost masterpiece got there.

One of the devices for doing this is to make the painting sometimes tell its own story, which is a questionable narrative device at best. To make us understand that it is of French origin, the painting indignantly exclaims “Non!” on various occasions, and refers to itself as “moi” rather than as “me”, and alludes, in an early chapter, to its acquaintance with “the rustle of taffeta and la richesse du damask”… Except that the French word for “damask” is actually “damas” – that’s one of many things that Rothschild or her editor might have cared to check, surely?

Rothschild occasionally writes well, and knows a fair amount about art and art-collecting (as befits someone of her privileged background, of course). But there are very awkward holes in her knowledge – and also in her ability to write. She sometimes just gets things plain wrong, as in “Where were those cooling tears when you need them?” (Free indirect style requires both verbs to be in the past tense, and “need” should be “needed” here.)

Various people have indicated the point at which they lost faith in the novel. Some have mentioned the point when the painting speaks… but for me it was the reference to a central table piece “flanked by miniature models of the goddesses Venus and Cupid” (p65 of the paperback edition). If Cupid was suddenly a female, then I wasn’t going to get on with the book.

I confess to having skimmed the last two hundred pages or so… Some say that you can’t denigrate a book if you haven’t read it through to the end. I would say “So many books, so little time”, and that you have to know when to cut your losses.

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plodding... and then breathtakingly brilliant, 30 Oct. 2014
This review is from: The Paying Guests (Hardcover)
I can recall reading four hundred pages of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and wanting to give up… and discovering with great delight that the last hundred pages made it all worthwhile… and that the slow build-up was deliberately and skilfully engineered.
The Paying Guests is even longer, and starts off very ploddingly indeed. However, this is again clearly deliberate, and a reflection of the mundane tedium - not to say the crashing boredom - of Frances’s life. Frances being what narratologists rather pretentiously call "the focaliser" – or "the reflector character" (but not the narrator) – everything is seen from her angle. Her life is boring, the story is boring, one damn thing after another. Until she falls in love…
And yet the way it is all done in order to put in place an absolutely excruciating moral dilemma (about which nothing can be said without giving away the most important element in the plot) is masterly ; and then the suspense of the last chapter had me spellbound, had me literally holding my breath. I read the final sentences with tears in my eyes, and knew that Sarah Waters had pulled it off.
As she invariably does. Because she’s an astoundingly good writer, and the way she recreates the period (post WW I) is the work of an extremely gifted writer.
One little thing that annoyed me: all those sentences, and even chapters, beginning with "And… " There are reasons for beginning sentences with "And…" (the illusion of spontaneity being one of them), but I didn’t feel it was always justified in The Paying Guests. (Where there is so little spontaneity, most of the time.)
But the conclusion is just so perfect.
And any novel that leaves me with those tears pricking in my eyes gets *****.

How to be both
How to be both
by Ali Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Both utterly delightful and decidedly disappointing, 12 Oct. 2014
This review is from: How to be both (Hardcover)
I was both delighted and disappointed by "How to be both". But not both at the same time. Both parts, printed in both orders, cover exactly 184 pages each, but I instinctively knew that I would enjoy the contemporary story more than the one about the Renaissance artist, and deliberately bought a copy with the contemporary part second, so I would have it to look forward to. (Yes, yet another advantage of bookshops over amazon: you can choose your copy.)
Ali Smith is brilliant at evoking the mindset of a precocious teenage girl, and she pulls off the characterisation of George in the same consummate fashion as she pulled off the character of Astrid in The Accidental.
Ali Smith is also brilliant at handling the tricks played by memory - and the way that dwelling on certain memories is like picking scabs. Painful and pleasurable - both at once. The juxtaposition of George's recent past (when her mother was still alive) and her present (when she is mourning her mother's death) is very adroitly done. The BBC broadcaster John Humphrys' recent highly risible comments about the "entirely bogus sense of immediacy" created by the so-called historic present to talk about the past must have made Ali Smith snort into her morning coffee. Come on, Humph, it's entirely logical to use the present tense to refer to the past if you're reliving that past AS IF IT WERE STILL THE PRESENT, and here the abrupt switches from present to past tense correspond very effectively to the moment when George snaps out of her vivid memories and has to deal with the daunting reality of the present moment once again.
And Ali Smith's periodical use of "like" is a welcome reminder of her brilliant exploration of the use of the semantic vagaries of that word in "Like", her first novel:
"You say something's like something else, and all you've really said is that actually, because it's only like it, it's different."
And you have to admire the way she slips in an entirely convincing-sounding example of the oft-frowned-upon juxtapostion "been being"... (Wish I'd noticed what/where it was...)
I hardly reckon Ali Smith will scoop the Booker (for which this is her third shortlisting) on Tuesday. They didn't dare give it to Nicola Barker, and they'll probably give it to something more readable and mainstream (Joshua Ferris, I would imagine... )
(My four stars are a compromise between the only-just-three for the Renaissance part and the very-definitely-five-and-shame-I-can't-give-it-more for the George part.)

by A.L. Kennedy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Too clever for its own good, 20 Sept. 2014
This review is from: Day (Paperback)
Oh dear, I did want to like Day, I genuinely wanted to do justice to what must surely have been a considerable labour of love for its author, A.L.Kennedy. But then I came across the word “sub-Woolfian” in a review, and the “sub-” brought home to me that it’s not given to everyone to write experimental fiction *and* succeed in moving the reader at the same time. (And one also has to acknowledge that, although Virginia Woolf has her admirers and imitators, she never, in the end, succeeded in killing off realistic linear narrative forms.)
Alfred Day is a shell-shocked soldier whose life has fallen apart and who (doubtless unwisely) attempts to find some kind of redemption as an extra in a film about the war… the novel is a jagged, distorted collection of memories of both that war and of his equally problematic childhood.
But far too jagged and distorted to ever engage the reader’s attention and interest. I love complicated stream-of-consciousness novels (Will Self’s Umbrella is a contemporary work of art), and yet I kept finding myself wondering what I’d missed, going back a few pages, realising that, no, I hadn’t missed anything… it was just confusing – and, ultimately, alienating.
I confess to having only skimmed the last hundred pages or so. “Too clever for its own good” sounds like a very harsh judgment indeed… but it seems the best way of summarising Day. To quote another unforgiving review: “words with the life sucked out of them”.

The Luminaries
The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious and probably overhyped, 23 April 2014
This review is from: The Luminaries (Paperback)
The Luminaries broke two records when it was given the Man Booker prize last year: the longest novel, and the youngest writer, to win the prize.
To my mind, it's one of the most rambling and most poorly constructed novels to have won, and Eleanor Catton is, I'm sorry to have to say, rather out of her depth.
The whole zodiac conceit, for one thing, is gratuitous and decidedly unconvincing. The idea is that twelve "stellar" characters are each associated with an astrological sign, while seven more important characters are presented (in the basically unhelpful "character chart" at the beginning of the novel - the map is even more unhelpful by the way) as "planetary". Then there is a "terra firma" character who, we are informed before the novel starts, is "deceased".
No clear justifications are given for these associations - but the way the book has been praised by sundry reviewers creates the impression that the reader is somehow not clever enough if he doesn't understand what's going on. Whereas, as far as I can see, it is Eleanor Catton trying to be too clever for her own good (and certainly for this particular reader's patience).
Even without the astrological dimension, the book is poorly put together. The unwitting intrusion of one character, Walter Moody, at the start, on what is presented as a top secret meeting of the twelve "stellar" characters, creates the impression that the reader will be guided by Moody's impressions, discoveries and interpretations as the novel develops. But then the different juxtaposed narratives become increasingly confused, and by the end Moody has disappeared altogether, without ever having become a convincing character in any way. Catton also tries, but again fails as a result of being inconsistent, to use an omniscient "we" (also definitively abandoned without any warning...)
As for the writing... Catton is sometimes able to evoke the 19th-century New Zealand setting in a convincing away. But she is at least equally capable of horrific linguistic clangers:
"It was therefore with a very well-concealed ignorance that Moody played interlocutor to Gascoigne, and Clinch..." (Play interlocutor?) She uses the non-existent "uncourteous" (but also the correct adjective "discourteous", later on). And then right at the end of the acknowledgements, she reserves a special word for, presumably, her partner: "Thank you - I to Thou". There may of course be a private allusion in that "Thou" (capital letter?) instead of "thee"; but it seems more likely that Catton has never studied a line of Shakespeare and does not know the difference between the two forms. And, in that case, it was rather a perilous exercise to attempt an 830-page pastiche of a 19th-century novel.
I regret the time and effort (and money) I expended on The Luminaries. If you start having misgivings by the time you get to page 50, take my advice: cut your losses. There are far better novels out there.

by Will Self
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant labour of love, 17 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Umbrella (Paperback)
While Vic Wilcox, the macho middle manager in David Lodge's Nice Work, reckons that reading "is what you do when you come home from work, to relax", Robyn Penrose, the feminist academic in that novel, explains that "Difficulty generates meaning. It makes the reader work harder." According to her: "Reading is production. And what we produce is meaning."

Will Self's Umbrella is not for those seeking relaxation or escapism in their reading-matter. But it is unquestionably an astoundingly brilliant novel, refreshing the parts other novels cannot reach* (and indeed, in most cases, do not even try to reach).

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man... - although never directly explained, the opening words of Umbrella provide a key to the novel, and in more than one way. Ape Man, by the Kinks, was in the UK pop charts (as they were then known) in the early part of 1971, and the words from the song's chorus are among the myriad musings going through the mind of the psychiatrist Zack Busner as he arrives at work in a London mental hospital. This is where Dr Busner is to encounter one Audrey Death, a patient in the hospital for the best part of the past fifty years, a victim of encephalitis lethargica in the years following World War I.

The allusion (one of scores of similar allusions and echoes, musical and otherwise, in the novel) is also a questioning of the difference between apes and humans (apart from being an obvious echo of Will Self's earlier novel, Great Apes, also featuring Zack Busner). The novel is constructed around Dr Busner's attempts to bring Audrey Death back to life, with the help of a new psychotropic drug. With the hope of bringing her out of her basically subhuman state...

The novel then alternates between four points of view: that of Audrey herself, as a munitions factory worker in the early years of the twentieth century; the chronologically parallel experiences of her elder and younger brothers - the elder one a civil servant, the younger one sent off to fight in the killing fields of the war - ; and the predicaments of the professionally brilliant, and philanderingly unfaithful, Dr Busner in the early 70s; and, as a kind of fragmented coda, the same Dr Busner some forty years later, wondering about the value and meaning of his professional life, and finding the erstwhile hospital converted into lucratively luxurious apartments.

Umbrella is a brilliantly sustained flight of literary imagination. It is very far removed from those novels where different points of view are blatantly signalled by chapters headed "Claire", "William", "Esther", "Claire"... Here there are no chapters, and indeed precious few paragraph breaks, and the point of view may abruptly switch in mid-sentence (in one particularly notable example the "nought" at the end of a phone number becomes the grammatical subject of an entirely different sentence).

But, independently of its (essentially modernist) narrative techniques, Will Self's novel pays a tribute, mainly through Audrey and the less fortunate of her two brothers, Stanley, to those countless characters mentioned at the very end of George Eliot's Middlemarch, "who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs". Ordinary people, who are extraordinary if one takes the time to peer below the surface. As Dr Busner does.

Umbrella is without any question a brilliant tour de force. It shows Will Self to be, as the Boston Globe put it, "Britain's reigning poet of the night".

[*This reference was thrown in rather gratuitously. If you picked up on it, you'll probably enjoy Umbrella...]

Lionel Asbo: State of England
Lionel Asbo: State of England
by Martin Amis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars State of the art, 13 Aug. 2013
People do go on (and on (and on)) about Martin Amis: he's politically incorrect, we're told... he has reactionary political opinions (not the same thing BTW), he's misogynistic, he's a condescending snob, he hates his own country... and on and on...

The fact remains that he's one of the most accomplished English writers of his generation. Money and London Fields are among the best English novels of the later years of the twentieth century; before them, The Rachel Papers was a remarkable debut novel, published while Amis was still in his early-to-mid twenties. The rot set in with Yellow Dog in 2003, cruelly lambasted as being "not-knowing-where-to-look bad" by Tibor Fischer in the Daily Telegraph. (If you've heard of, and maybe read, Martin Amis, but not heard of, and let alone read, Tibor Fischer, you can draw the appropriate conclusions...)

Lionel Asbo: State of England begins with fifteen-year-old Desmond Pepperdine confessing, in a letter to a tabloid agony aunt, that he's been having an inappropriate relationship with his grannie. (Who's all of thirty-nine.) This is the subtitular "state of England", established via this striking and extreme caricature of how the moral compasses have all gone decidedly wonky. (Grannie gave birth to Cilla, Desmond's mother, at the age of twelve, and Cilla produced Desmond at the same age, and later died in a freak accident.)

And yet Desmond, who thus lost his mother before he was a teenager (and of course never knew his father), will make his way in life, and become a (tabloid) journalist. And be set in contrast with his uncle, the Lionel Asbo of the title, a severely psychotic hooligan with whom he shares a flat on the thirty-third floor of a tower block, and whose communication with his nephew takes the form of rhetorical questions such as "Why aren't you out smashing windows?"

Lionel goes on to win £140,000,000 (all but 50p, to be fastidiously precise) on the lottery, and the novel then develops into a devastating satire on celebrity and various kinds of excess. And loutishness. And false tits. And the way that money, unsurprisingly, does not buy happiness. Or love.

Lionel. "Loyonoo"... And there's also "Mao" (i.e. Lionel's mate Mal.) As ever, Amis is spot-on in his dissection of the ways people speak, the ways in which they use and abuse language. (Another clear example: "Get you fat prat in that sauna!") The prose is often laugh-out-loud - as are the multiple mishaps. It's perhaps not quite in the league of its brilliant predecessor, The Pregnant Widow, but's it's still the best novel I've read this year. And Martin Amis is the most accomplished writer around today, whether you like it or not. And whether you like him or not.


by Graham Swift
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Distinctly disappointing by this writer's standards, 24 July 2013
This review is from: Tomorrow (Paperback)
I will concur that "Tomorrow", while typical of Graham Swift's themes, is far from being the novelist at his best, as in the masterpiece "Waterland", for example.

Swift's most general theme is the past : the influence the past has on the present, the way decisions or events from the past are sometimes misunderstood, even deliberately misrepresented, and the way such misunderstandings or misrepresentations may also influence present situations, particularly within families.

Part of the failure of "Tomorrow" is quite simple to pinpoint, I feel: the narrator, Paula, lying awake at night, is going over in her mind the revelations to be made, by herself and her husband, Mike, to their teenaged twins the following day. But, of course, Paula is speaking simultaneously to both her twins (who, of course, have already known their mother for sixteen years) and the reader, who gets to know her and everything about her through the text. And it's perhaps difficult to speak to a reader and to one's own children in the same way.

The major revelation to be made to the kids, as many reviewers pointed out, is not exactly earth-shattering. The novel's shortcoming is that the reader focuses on the nature of the revelation, and then, once it has been made, realises that not much else has been said - and consequently feels rather cheated.

What saves the novel from being really banal, however, is that there are in fact two revelations, which are closely linked - and Paula's husband is party, so far, to only one of them. That being the case, will both revelations be made to the children? If so, Mike is in for a shock as well as the kids. If not, then how reliable a narrator is Paula in the first place?

I have Graham Swift's most recent novel, "Wish You Were Here", to look forward to. I'm sincerely hoping it's a bit more adventurous, and meatier, than "Tomorrow", which has to be considered a relative failure by a writer who, at his very best ("Waterland" again), is undoubtedly one of Britain's finest contemporary writers.

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