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The Known World
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slavery epic fails to fully engage, 24 May 2005
This review is from: The Known World (Paperback)
Over the past decade, a number of novels that have been both personal favourites and received significant critical acclaim have dealt with various dimensions of the issue of slavery. These include Valerie Martin's Orange Prize winning 'Property'; Abdulrazak Gurnah's Booker short-listed 'Paradise'; Caryl Phillips Commonwealth Prize winning 'Crossing the River' and Barry Unsworth's Booker-winner 'Sacred Hunger'. Edward P Jones has already received lavish critical acclaim for 'The Known World', including the Pulitzer Prize and a recent short-listing for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Prize, yet I found this meandering epic failed to deliver the emotional impact that I had expected.
'The Known World' is set primarily in Manchester County in the state of Virginia in the 1850s and 1860s, although Jones also journeys outside the county and travels both forwards and backwards in time to flesh out particular threads of the story. If there is a central character in the story then it is Henry Townsend, a former slave who becomes a successful, slave-owning black farmer. Indeed, this raises my principal concern with the novel, that there really is no central character but rather an array of loosely-connected characters whose lives are explored in varying degrees of depth. As a consequence, unlike in the prize-winning novels mentioned in the introduction, I failed to particularly engage with any of the characters despite some of the awful incidents that occur. This inability to engage fully with the novel is compounded by Jones' impersonal and academic-sounding prose. 'The Known World' is clearly particularly well-researched and contains a wealth of factual information about the practice of slavery in the particular period, so that the work continued to hold my interest throughout. In particular, the novel is interesting in portraying blacks and American Indians as slave-owners; the social distinctions between whites in the South and the precariousness of life even for supposedly 'free' blacks. However, my lack of engagement with the characters in the novel meant that I finished feeling curiously flat and indifferent.


Crabwalk
Crabwalk
by Günter Grass
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece of Titanic Proportions, 24 May 2005
This review is from: Crabwalk (Paperback)
The torpedoing of German converted cruise-ship 'Wilhelm Gustloff, overloaded with refugees, by a Soviet submarine during World War II is the single deadliest maritime disaster of all time, resulting in over nine thousand deaths. In 'Crabwalk' Gunter Grass scuttles over almost a century of history to examine events building up to this catastrophe, and its consequences on generations of a German family. In doing so, Grass creates a novel exploring the effects of Germany's Nazi past on contemporary German society that is at least the equal of Bernhard Schlink's highly acclaimed 'The Reader'. Particularly impressive is Grass's skillful use of the internet, and particularly chat rooms, as a vehicle both for conveying information on the disaster and developing the various strands of the story. 'Crabwalk' is an engrossing, compelling and thought-provoking read for those interested in the recurring impact of the past on the present.


The Optimists
The Optimists
by Andrew Miller
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Struggle to find meaning in modern world, 23 May 2005
This review is from: The Optimists (Hardcover)
Clem Glass is a photo-journalist used to working in the world's troublespots, but has returned to London shellshocked and traumatised after witnessing and photographing the aftermath of a massacre in central Africa. Clem is a fundamentally decent character, portrayed warts and all, trying to make sense of his experiences in Africa, rekindle his faith in humanity and get his life back on track. After weeks of simply not coping, Clem flies to Toronto to meet his journalistic partner on the African story, Frank Silverman, who is likewise struggling to move on with his life by becoming involved in ground-level community projects. Still struggling, Clem returns to Britain and pays a visit on his father William, widower and retired aerospace engineer, who, in trying to make sense of the world, has withdrawn to live in an island community of like-minded brothers. Following this visit, Clem visits his sister Clare who is voluntarily seeking care for a relapse of mental health problems, experiencing anxieties and powerful fantasies. As luck would have it, Clem's Aunt Laura rather conveniently happens to have a disused, rundown cottage on her country property, and Clem becomes registered carer for his sister, setting both siblings on the track to recovery. Meanwhile, Clem receives a lead on the possible whereabouts of the mastermind of the African massacre, Sylvestre Ruzindana...
Whilst the above synopsis makes 'The Optimisits' sound heavy-going, the novel's overall tone is lightened by many perceptive observations of human behaviour that bring a smile to the face, and it is easy to identify and empathise with the cast of real, fully-developed characters who just happen to be going through difficulties in their lives. Ultimately, 'The Optimists' is life-affirming, stressing that we need faith in ourselves and stubborn belief in the goodness of others - if only to stop us going crazy!! This is the third of Miller's four novels that I have read, and is every bit as good as 'Ingenious Pain', winner of the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, and the Booker-shortlisted 'Oxygen'.


Schopenhauer's Telescope
Schopenhauer's Telescope
by Gerard Donovan
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Nature of Evil, 21 May 2005
In a bitterly cold, snow-driven European village, the narrator marches through a field followed by another man and two soldiers. The soldiers throw a pickaxe and a shovel between the two men. The narrator, who turns out to be the village baker, begins to dig whilst the other man looks on. Gradually, as the observed baker digs deeper and deeper, the men strike up conversation and the baker realises that his heavily-smoking overseer is his brother's former teacher. Meanwhile, villagers are brought truckload after truckload to await their fate in a nearby field...
'Schopenhauer's Telescope' consists largely of dialogue between the baker/narrator and the teacher, canvassing a range of historical and philosophical issues - and in particular the nature of evil - by drawing upon anecdotes from medieval Europe to Big Foot and the Sioux Indians, Genghis Khan to King Leopold in the Congo. Although I usually enjoy novels that concentrate on ideas and issues, I found most of this novel tough-going and almost gave up on a number of occasions. It is difficult for the reader to feel any connection with either character as little information is given about the two men, and the scant information that is given portrays both in a bad light with the teacher appearing particularly authoritarian and the baker coming across as a swindler and a bit of a weirdo. Furthermore, except for the brief discussion of Schopenhauer's telescope and an amusing anecdote applying Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' to the shopping practices of the village policeman's wife, most of the historical and philosophical anecdotes weren't particularly engaging. Moreover, Donovan's various devices for conveying this information struck me as heavy-handed and gave the novel as a whole a contrived feel.
The novel more than redeems itself in the final thirty pages or so where everything comes together. Indeed, the ending is so satisfying that I have given Donovan's debut novel an overall three star grading. But it really was an act of faith to persevere getting there!


Schopenhauer's Telescope
Schopenhauer's Telescope
by Gerard Donovan
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Nature of Evil, 21 May 2005
In a bitterly cold, snow-driven European village, the narrator marches through a field followed by another man and two soldiers. The soldiers throw a pickaxe and a shovel between the two men. The narrator, who turns out to be the village baker, begins to dig whilst the other man looks on. Gradually, as the observed baker digs deeper and deeper, the men strike up conversation and the baker realises that his heavily-smoking overseer is his brother's former teacher. Meanwhile, villagers are brought truckload after truckload to await their fate in a nearby field...
'Schopenhauer's Telescope' consists largely of dialogue between the baker/narrator and the teacher, canvassing a range of historical and philosophical issues - and in particular the nature of evil - by drawing upon anecdotes from medieval Europe to Big Foot and the Sioux Indians, Genghis Khan to King Leopold in the Congo. Although I usually enjoy novels that concentrate on ideas and issues, I found most of this novel tough-going and almost gave up on a number of occasions. It is difficult for the reader to feel any connection with either character as little information is given about the two men, and the scant information that is given portrays both in a bad light with the teacher appearing particularly authoritarian and the baker coming across as a swindler and a bit of a weirdo. Furthermore, except for the brief discussion of Schopenhauer's telescope and an amusing anecdote applying Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' to the shopping practices of the village policeman's wife, most of the historical and philosophical anecdotes weren't particularly engaging. Moreover, Donovan's various devices for conveying this information struck me as heavy-handed and gave the novel as a whole a contrived feel.
The novel more than redeems itself in the final thirty pages or so where everything comes together. Indeed, the ending is so satisfying that I have given Donovan's debut novel an overall three star grading. But it really was an act of faith to persevere getting there!


The Photograph
The Photograph
by Penelope Lively
Edition: Hardcover

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skilfully-crafted, engaging and moving, 20 May 2005
This review is from: The Photograph (Hardcover)
Glyn Peters - academic, 'landscape historian' and sometime television presenter - chances upon an envelope marked 'DON'T OPEN - DESTROY' whilst ferreting away in his landing cupboard. He ignores the warning to reveal a photograph, the contents of which propel him, somewhat obsessively, to seek out people directly and indirectly connected with an earlier period in his life and to re-examine his most significant relationship. It would spoil the considerable suspense in 'The Photograph' to reveal more than this skeletal outline of the plot. Suffice it to say that on the fairly simple premise of one unearthed photograph, Lively has crafted a highly plausible, intelligent, absorbing and ultimately very moving account of the interaction between a bubbly, beautiful and unaffected woman and a range of well-developed characters who entered her world. Strongly recommended.


The Orchard on Fire
The Orchard on Fire
by Shena Mackay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully-crafted story of girl�s �50s childhood, 4 May 2005
This review is from: The Orchard on Fire (Paperback)
'The Orchard on Fire' chronicles events in 1953 in the life of eight-year old April Harlency, whose parents have recently moved to the village of Stonehenge in Kent to run a tearoom. She becomes best friends with fiery, tomboyish Ruby, whose parents are proprietors of the local pub, and together they share experiences with an array of village characters including creepy Mr Greenridge; strict schoolmistress Miss Fay; bohemian artists Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix, and village communists, the Silver family.
Mackay's writing is simply beautiful: there were many occasions when I re-read whole paragraphs to savour the language. 'The Orchard on Fire' brilliantly evokes village life in the '50s through convincing period details, dialogue and - most of all - development of a diverse range of characters whose mindsets mirror the values and behaviours of the times. Without excessive nostalgia, Mackay transports the reader back to arguably gentler, more innocent times - whilst warning of social evils that may lurk beneath the veneer of respectability. In a market-place awash with novels depicting childhood experiences, 'The Orchard On Fire' stands out for its realism and honesty and, above all, elegantly-crafted prose.


Oryx And Crake
Oryx And Crake
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to earth in a credible near future, 3 May 2005
This review is from: Oryx And Crake (Paperback)
This is only the third of Margaret Atwood's novels that I have read and, whilst overall I did not find this novel quite as satisfying as either 'The Blind Assassin' or 'Alias Grace', it is nevertheless particularly well-written and constructed. 'Oryx and Crake' recounts the life of Snowman as he struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, flashing back to his earlier life as Jimmy living in a plausible Earth of the near future.

Jimmy is an appealing lead character, an ordinary guy growing up in a company-run, high-security self-contained compound due to his parents' employment in cutting-edge biotechnology issues. Jimmy's childhood friend is super-intelligent Crake, and the two enjoy hanging out together playing Extinctathon, or watching the latest in reality TV, the Noodie News or liberal amounts of porn. Both manage to avoid the Pleeblands of the masses, home to all manner of social ills. Jimmy scrapes into a run-of-the-mill university, whilst Crake enters a prestigious academically-rigorous establishment to pursue biotechnology studies with like-minded students. The two childhood friends retain email contact, and leading biotechnologist Crake rescues Jimmy from his mundane job just as Crake's projects take on interesting developments...
Atwood describes this Earth of the near future with literary flair, intelligence, imagination and liberal dashes of black humour. In a fairly light, non-didactic manner, Atwood deals with a wide range of moral and ethical issues concerned with biotechnology, issues that are being confronted now or potentially could arise in the near future, as well as gender issues such as the treatment of women and pornography. Importantly, 'Oryx and Crake' is not a far-fetched novel full of scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo, but rather a highly credible and intelligent exploration of scientific issues that are relevant now.
In the post-apocalyptic world, Jimmy adopts the moniker of Snowman. He feels obligated to protect the Crakers, the new species of designed human, particularly as he may be the last human wandering through the dystopian landscape. Whilst Snowman's travails make fairly interesting reading, there is little to distinguish it from many other similar scenarios in film and literature: indeed, 'Oryx and Crake' suffers somewhat from a general lack of depth in the plot-line. Furthermore, although the Jimmy/Snowman character is well-rounded, other principal characters such as science boffin Crake and Oryx, object of lust for both Crake and Jimmy, are fairly flat. In short, 'Oryx and Crake' is most definitely a worthwhile read, particularly for those interested in the issues that it canvasses. Equally however, those seeking their initial acquaintance with the works of this acclaimed Canadian novelist may be better served considering 'The Blind Assassin', 'Alias Grace', 'Cat's Eye' or 'The Handmaid's Tale'.


The Restraint of Beasts
The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Paperback

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-constructed comedy of poorly-constructed fences!, 3 May 2005
Magnus Mills' has crafted a particularly well-written black comedy around the unlikely theme of fence construction. In 'The Restraint of Beasts', the English narrator receives the dubious honour of being appointed supervisor of two Scottish fence-builders: the bone idle Richie and his even lazier offsider Tam. Both Richie and Tam are live for the day - or at least a few pints at night - and never seem to have two pennies to rub together. The novel faithfully captures the sheer drudgery of repetitive and mundane physical labour, as well as the humour that can occur in such workplaces. The work of this team as they construct supposedly high-tensile fences comes under a great deal of scrutiny from management, clients and rivals - with darkly funny consequences. Suffice it to say that there are many laughs in this quirky novel that has resonances of classic English comedies such as 'Withnail and I' and 'The League of Gentlemen'.
Magnus Mills' debut novel would have been a possible 5-star contender for most of the journey. However, the novel becomes significantly blacker and less humourous in the final stages with no apparently good reason, ending most abruptly in an annoying and unsatisfying manner. Nevertheless, 'The Restraint of Beasts' is a highly entertaining, off-beat black comedy that accurately portrays the lifestyle of workers fenced in by economic forces.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 15, 2014 3:32 PM BST


The Feast of the Goat
The Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling historico-political account of life under tyrant, 30 April 2005
This review is from: The Feast of the Goat (Paperback)
Mario Vargas Llosa's 'The Feast of the Goat is a detailed and exceptionally well-written account of political life in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, in the last years of the tyrannical rule of 'the Goat', Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who effectively ruled from 1930 to 1961 (despite officially renouncing the Presidency in 1947). This novel provides a considerable amount of factual detail for those readers that have some prior acquaintance with the subject matter, but is nevertheless eminently readable for those without. There are references to a great many - possibly as many as a hundred - historical figures, and sometimes the great number of unfamiliar names can be a handful, but the novel is written (and translated) in such a way that the reader can recall previous information about characters re-introduced into the story.
'The Feast of a Goat' consists of broadly three interwoven strands. Firstly, the author unflinchingly tackles the actions, behaviour and thoughts of Trujillo head-on, offering insights into the psychological make-up and motivations of a despot. In the process, Vargas Llosa also analyses the character and actions of the Generallisimo's closest lackeys. Secondly, the novel builds up the suspense in the execution and aftermath of a plan to take The Great Benefactor's life, in the process examining the personal histories of the seven co-conspirators. Thirdly, Vargas Llosa chronicles the harrowing stories of Uranita Cabral, successful New York lawyer, as she returns to Santo Domingo to confront her broken and invalided father, Agustin, formerly right-hand man to 'The Father of the New Nation'.
If I were to venture a minor criticism, it is that in concentrating almost exclusively on the impact of the regime on the political elite of the time and their families, I still have little insight into the lives of ordinary people or culture in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, this is an extremely satisfying feast of a novel with great drama, suspense, emotion and historical accuracy, offering perceptive insights into the character make-up of tyrants and issues facing those living under them: a subject that regrettably retains relevancy half a century on.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2008 7:18 PM BST


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