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By Yelena Akhtiorskaya Panic in a Suitcase [Hardcover]
By Yelena Akhtiorskaya Panic in a Suitcase [Hardcover]
by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Disgust and inadequacy, 16 Jun. 2015
PANIC IN A SUITCASE is the story of Ukrainian émigré family in NY, principally Flora and her daughter Firda and Flora’s brother Pasha left behind in Odessa. It appears to be set mainly in the 1990s.

Pasha is a ‘poet’, as an occupation, not just a hobby. The novel opens as Pasha arrives to visit his family in New York. His mother Ester has breast cancer. This will be the first of at least two visits he will make to New York. Whilel there, Pasha does next to nothing – much as he appears to do back in Odessa – except visit some old chums, knock about museums and galleries, nibble at feasts his mother prepares and make people feel slightly uncomfortable. He has no interest in his wife or children back in Ukraine, but eventually returns there, divorces and marries a much younger woman...

PANIC IN A SUITCASE is a masterpiece of style and very little else. Akhtiorskaya is a brilliant creator of sentences and paragraphs, but her characters are all lousy, her plot and storyline are nonexistent, they is no tension, no mystery, nothing to drive the story forward except the desire to see what she does in the next sentence. This is why a Bartholemeu story rarely extended beyond 5 pages.

PANIC IN A SUITCASE is overlong by about 200 pages, and such is the nature of the work, that almost any contiguous section of 15 pages would do. It is a book that I enjoyed greatly at the beginning, but hated as I laborious hacked my way to the ‘end’. There actually is no end, it just stops. It gave me the same mix of disgust and inadequacy I get when I try to read Joyce Carol Oates.

It would take more than a whole page to expound on the theme of the work, it being so convoluted. The whole work has a very similar feel to Dostoevsky’s THE IDIOT. Vast passages of almost nothing but authorial showing off occur to make the tiniest point. THE IDIOT however, does have a clear, is somewhat slow, plot and a clear theme for Dostoevsky to show off around. Akhtiorskaya basically doesn’t. All she has is a fine way with words, and it is a very fine way indeed, which only compounds my disappointment in the work as a whole.

A Perfect Crime
A Perfect Crime
Price: £7.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Not about China, 16 Jun. 2015
This review is from: A Perfect Crime (Kindle Edition)
PERFECT CRIME is what happens when you throw Dostoevsky, Camus, Coelho and Kafka in a wok and fry it up with a dash of Melville. What comes out is something of a question of taste. Set in somewhere almost exactly like contemporary China, like many short novels, it almost defies summary.

An unnamed teenage narrator has been sent to live in a kind of ghost town with his aunt, whom he loathes and detests, not without good reason. He has numerous dead relatives. He pawns a jade Buddha he discovers while trying to rob his aunt’s safe, murders one of his schoolmates who he has a gigantic crush on, poisons the neighbor’s dog and goes on the run... The book is his final confession, written in his death cell.

Obviously, there is a lot of flesh hanging on those meager bones of plot. But then how would you summarize Bartelby or L’Etranger? The trouble, if it is trouble, is that for every tale from the underground or alchemist, there are thousands of unpalatable concoctions of pretension and conceit. If you were a gambler, in true Dostoevsky style, you might be tempted to bet that PERFECT CRIME falls on the side of the line populated by less than ten great novella, but chances are it will be one of the thousand failures. I don’t feel adequate to make that call.

Is it a long piece of immature m@sturbation or key to some existential mystery? There is certainly no shortage of both m@sturbation and existential dilemma in the text and it’s quite a ropey translation which doesn’t help.

All in all, I enjoyed PERFECT CRIME. It is certainly not a sentimental book, though it could easily have become one. In fact, it has a certain gristle which moves it to the Russian end of the Coelho-Fyodor Mikhailovich spectrum rather than the Brazilian, and has the genuine of feel of a book which is placed directly in between the author and the writer.

What I suppose I ultimately like most about the book is that it explores universal concepts in a Chinese setting. All too frequently, books like this tend to be “about China” and by that become almost necessarily parochial.

I’d be “excited” to discover this, but goodness only knows what is to be done with it.

Orhan's Inheritance
Orhan's Inheritance
by Aline Ohanesian
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.62

4.0 out of 5 stars Another dull genocide, 16 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Orhan's Inheritance (Hardcover)
ORHAN’S INHERITANCE is set in Turkey and California in 1990 and Turkey in 1915. It is a sprawling family drama with the feel of some holocaust writing and sits squarely in the middle of territory firmly occupied by the loathesome Khaled Hossein. It is the work of a very talented writer who has not yet found her voice, patchy and inconsistent, overwritten and occasionally twee, but nonetheless has considerable charm, and despite my every attempt to dislike and scorn the work, it pleased me greatly. I almost feel protective of it.

Grandfather Kemal is found dead in a cauldron of blue dye in front of his carpet factory. In his will he leaves his business to grandson Orhan, one of his properties to his son Mustafa - a lazy cantankerous SOB – on condition that he continues to provide for Kemal’s dilapidated sister Fatma. He leaves the family home to a woman called Sela, of whom no one has previously heard. The will is clearly invalid legally, as everything should rightfully pass to Mustafa, but it is very strongly in Orhan’s interests to prevent Mustafa from contesting the will, and to that end flies to California to “buy back” the house from Sela, whoever she may be. As a young man, Orhan was a photographer, exiled from Turkey for taking the wrong kind of pictures, who has since returned and runs the carpet business. Sela will turn out to be 90 years old, reticent, also cantankerous, and living in a home for decrepit Armenians....

There is an awful lot about ORHAN’S INHERITANCE which is not good. One of the main things is “who cares?” There is no shortage of genocides in the world (almost all failed, of course) and no shortage of ethnic groups clamoring to stick their particular terror higher up the list. The events of the novel take place in 1990. Why am I reading it in 2015? It is badly overwritten in general, with far too many adjectives, far too much colour and far too many similes. Roughly half the book is set in 1915 and all of those sections are simply boring. However…

Once in a while, Ohanesian pulls a sentence, a metaphor or an image out of the hat which takes your breath away. My experiences of writers attempting to shoot metaphors in a barrel is that they are never any good. She is, just sometimes, just enough. The development of Orhan’s character is second-to-none. It’s brilliant. Enough said. The character of Sela, as an old woman, is superb and every dialogue she is part of shimmers. When she is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off her. Likewise her foil, the similarly aged Fatma, indeed, is a perfect foil. Fatma is more or a caricature than a character, but she works; she does her job.

The most interesting thing for me, critically, about ORHAN is that it is easy to pick it apart, strand by strand, but as a whole, it somehow turns out to be a very, very pleasing book. It’s not “great” or earth-shattering, but no matter how many flaws any novel has, if the reader loves one of the characters, then all is forgiven. This reader loved many of them.

Rush Hour: How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work
Rush Hour: How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work
Price: £5.03

4.0 out of 5 stars Breakneck speed, 16 Jun. 2015
RUSH HOUR is another addition to the towering heap of interdisciplinary “pop” non-fiction, that includes such unlikely bundles of knowledge as cod, guns, salt, germs and steel. Happily – joyously indeed – Gately’s book is very near the top of the heap.

Gately takes us on a journey to work that begins even before the golden age of steam when commuting was unheard of, until it became a commonplace for… almost everyone. He examines the challenges commuters face every day, how they overcome them, tries to decide whether they are wasting their time. He finished with a look at the future: Will the virtual telecommute transcend the “real” commute?

The basic concept is pretty contrived and disparate, but we have a great researcher and a brilliant writer to deal with. Rush is the word. The pace of the “narrative” is nothing like a slow grind along the Westway. The book moves at breakneck speed and, without any actual tension, it is riveting. I did, indeed, read it on the train: no joke. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

If the book as a fault is in its anglocentricity, with numerous forays across the pond but only the occasional tourist trip into the rest of the world, notably Asia rather than other parts of Europe. There is no doubt that this is a great read, but whether anyone in Helsinki or Ankara will be interested, I’m not sure. What I am sure is that is you are vaguely interested in social history, transport, futurology, town planning… blah blah blah… if you pick up RUSH HOUR, you won’t put it down.

Speed Kings
Speed Kings
by Andy Bull
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Tom Wolfe, 16 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Speed Kings (Hardcover)
SPEED KINGS is the fictionalized, novelized biography of Billy Fisk. Fisk was something of an all-American hero, winning two Olympic golds in the bobsled (1928 and 1932) the first at the age of 17. He was a golden boy, from a highly priviledge background and dead before he was 30.

On balance, while the story is gripping and well told, there is a little bit too much “legend” and not enough authorial craft. Speed, the technicalities of speed and the contraptions by which speed was obtained is obviously central to the book and, while these matters are not handled incompetently or poorly, they could be better.

A story which is so engaging, so “big”, in so many ways simply needs a bigger voice and more lyrical power, by the author, even if he chooses to stand very far back from the story. Bull keeps himself very much out of the book, and I wish he was a little more present. Some sections become a bit more technical that the average reader will enjoy. Ball manages to control the story by keeping his hands off it, when what it really needs is a bigger voice. Too much biography, not enough novel. We can’t all be Tom Wolfe, obviously, but then we can’t all write brilliant books either.

The House of Hidden Mothers
The House of Hidden Mothers
Price: £4.72

5.0 out of 5 stars What a clever woman she is, 16 Jun. 2015
THE HOUSE OF HIDDEN MOTHERS is the story of intercontinental surrogacy. Unable to have child of their own, British Indian Shyama and her much younger boyfriend Toby are convinced to travel to New Delhi where a rural Indian woman, Mala, will give birth on their behalf. There are an awful lot of good things about THE HOUSE OF HIDDEN MOTHERS, the simplicity of the basic premise not least among them. There is no one quite does pathos like Meera Syal and this story is an almost perfect vehicle for her talents.

The clinic chosen by Shyama and Toby has high ethical standards on the surface, but this is India, and Mala, is no dumb peasant girl. She's a peasant girl who wants the money and is smart enough to get it, regardless of the clinic's "strict" selection procedure. Wide-eyed Toby sees the magic of India, Shymara sees filth and corruption, Mala sees money. To complicate matters, as if they needed to be, Shyama's parents have decided to visit India at the same time to repossess an apartment where distant relatives currently squat...

There is very little more difficult for an author than meeting ‘difficult’ issues head on and remaining light hearted- funny even – without becoming gauche or twee. Syal’s writing is utterly effortless. Her minor characters and her subplots are superb. Her treatment of serious issues is exactly that, serious. We have seen so many “cross cultural” books lately, frequently about émigrés in new lands, but you won’t see it much better than this. Unpretentious, user-friendly writing that allows the story to gallop along at its own pace.

Syal is pretty close to being a national treasure in the UK. Her two previous novels were not just popular and successful by widely loved, for want of a better word. With THE HOUSE OF HIDDEN MOTHERS she may have written her best book.

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
Price: £6.02

3.0 out of 5 stars Bijoux, 16 Jun. 2015
THE DIVERS CLOTHES LIE EMPTY is a second-person novel set almost entirely in Casablanca, Morocco with occasional scenes in Florida.

A young woman flies to Casablanca, fleeing unenthusiastically from something. Soon after arrival he backpack containing everything that has her name on it is stolen. The next day the police “return” to her a similar backpack, but the passport, credit cards and diary within belong to another women, Sabine, with similar looks. She suspects that she is being fitted up, but there is nothing except her own paranoia to back his up. Inch by inch she gradually adopts Sabine’s identity...

The style is bright and breezy, sometimes quite amusing, easy, clever and very accomplished. “As a read”, the quality of the novel very much revolves around whether one likes the second person or not. It’s certainly very well done second person, but gets a bit wearing in over 200 pages and the question as to whether the psychotic/neurotic tone that automatically tags along with second-person helps or hinders the themes of the novel. The most pertinent question being where is the line between “reality” and the main protagnist’s intellectual state lie? Is this a story of events, or is it a story of psychosis?

The identity switching is a trick that has prominent in literature from Greek drama and the Bible through Shakespeare up till the deadly serious Saramago and the cheesiest of Holywood movies, so there is not point in criticizing the idea as unoriginal. The question is, does it work?

As a good read, yes it does work. As a philosophical work, I don’t think it works at all: we are simply offered a kind of list of ways this woman’s identity could be considered meaningless and a list of ways an identity can be changed. I can’t find any philosophical insight or oomph behind it all. It neither asks nor answers any questions.

Despite that, it is an enjoyable bijoux and pretty much guaranteed some kind of success and good reviews.

In My House
In My House
Price: £5.03

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sloppy, 16 Jun. 2015
This review is from: In My House (Kindle Edition)
Set mostly in London between the 1980s and near present, IN MY HOUSE, while a family drama of sorts, is essentially a one character novel which explores the life of Margaret Benson (“Mags”) as she approaches sixty, especially through her relationships with her two daughters (both more or less estranged) and Anja a pregnant teenage Albanian pseudo-refugee. There are numerous scenes of Mags’ relationship with her own mother who, though it seems hardly possible, appears to be an even more obnoxious character than Mags herself. The novel is more of an exercise in style and voice than of plot or narrative, with Hourston aiming extremely high. Unfortunately it is littered with (albeit mostly minor) inadequacies of style, anachronisms and questionable time-line issues. It is lazy writing by an author with far too high an opinion of her own gifts. It’s like a female Julian Barnes or sloppy female Ishiguro.

The spine of the story follows the linear development of the relationship between Mags and Anja, with various slices of Mag’s previous woes served up almost willy-nilly in a patchwork which eventually resolves into a whole back story.

Hourston devotes a whole chapter - and quite a long one - to a confession. It doesn’t clear anything up that was particularly important and left me wondering if i had missed some vital point. In fact, it feels like this was once central to the development of the story, but somehow got lost during the writing process. It would have been better, and perhaps have made more sense as an epilogue.

The whole work is a peculiar melange of quite dull chocolate-box scenes, predictable and unedifying, told in the strident and emotionless voice of Mags. If it is a chocolate box, they sure ain’t soft centers. It is not possible, at any stage, to develop any sympathy for Mags at all.

The dialogue is invariably boring, with every character having the same voice. We are asked to believe that this woman is some sort of high-powered medical transcriptionist, and, to a certain extent, that is credible, but then she uses constructions such as "should of", "the door went" and "sat reading". Anja speaks very good English: far too good in every respect for someone who taught herself. Anja is not the least bit credible. Furthermore, I was constantly thinking “that doesn’t much like the 60s/70s/80s” and most of the legalistic background to Anja’s asylum cases feels sloppy.

The Gallery of Lost Species
The Gallery of Lost Species
by Nina Berkhout
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Elevator music, 16 Jun. 2015
THE GALLERY OF LOST SPECIES is a great title, and perhaps inevitably, a really dreary book. It occupies the sludgy area between memoir and first novel that so many first timers seem to want to call home. Tediously first-person. It’s more of long unpunctuated whine than a novel.

Edith and Vivienne are sisters growing up in Canada in somewhat straightened circumstances. Their father is a living saint (yawn) and their mother a bohemian eccentric who pimps Vivienne through child beauty pageants – fertile soil upon which Berkhout plants such scrawny weeds. They grow up, have boyfriends and Vivienne does some drugs, but nothing to write home or a novel about. Good sister s Edith goes to work in Museums and discovers cryptozoology, more fertile soil up which more weeds are strewn; the whole subject being used as a metaphor for a family life which is not tragic, unusual, nor interesting.

I can’t imagine any man ever enjoying this book, the only readership I can imagine are failed (female) writers who respect Berkhout’s ability to stick words together pleasantly without actually succeeding in saying or meaning anything. There is nothing here except bring self-indulgence. Elevator music.

Cryptogram Puzzles
Cryptogram Puzzles
Price: £0.63

2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars, 16 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Cryptogram Puzzles (App)
Boring and misconceived App version of an ESL classroom activity

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