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The Last Samurai
The Last Samurai
by Helen Dewitt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzlingly well-written, totally engaging and lots of fun, 23 Aug. 2005
This review is from: The Last Samurai (Paperback)
'The Last Samurai' is an extremely entertaining, thought-provoking and stylishly written debut novel that was deservedly short-listed for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Read this novel if for no other reason than that it is incredibly funny: indeed, I have to go back a couple of decades to recall a book of any description that has made me laugh out loud more, and there is one page of this text that had me in paroxysms of laughter (in the middle of a popular cafe...) But this novel - about a single mother, Sibylla, and her unconventional child-rearing of young Ludo as he seeks to uncover the identity of his father - has many other qualities. DeWitt's writing is exhilarating, incorporating first-person narratives from both Sibylla and Ludo, with an eclectic mix of material from sources as diverse as Akira Kurosawa's screenplay for 'The Seven Samurai' and Homer's 'Odyssey', to mathematics and the wonders of Japanese 'Kanji' characters - and the odd smatterings of languages as diverse as Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Finnish for good measure!! 'The Last Samurai' will particularly appeal to those who consider the acquisition of knowledge and learning to be critical to the development of both individuals and society. DeWitt makes some serious points in the course of 'The Last Samurai', particularly about the dumbing down of society and the shortcomings of education systems in dealing with gifted children, but also about parenting issues and the importance of identity to our individual well-being. I absolutely loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.


Red Sorghum
Red Sorghum
by Mo Yan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Colourful and compelling Chinese epic, 18 Aug. 2005
This review is from: Red Sorghum (Paperback)
I still retain vivid memories of Zhang Yi Mou's film adaptation of this novel, one of the earliest in a wave of new cinema to come out of China beginning in the late 1980s that included 'Yellow Earth', 'Raise the Red Lantern', 'Farewell My Concubine' and 'Not One Less'. All of the colour and imagery, blood and death that were unforgettable on screen are directly inspired by Mo Yan's bold, earthy, visceral writing, prose that is entirely appropriate for this engrossing, larger-than-life epic tale of three generations of a family living in China's north-eastern Shangdong Province.
In the early stages of the novel, Mo Yan intertwines events surrounding the meeting of his grandparents in the early 1920s with the conflicts and atrocities of the Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930s. As the novel progresses, Mo Yan fills in the details of the amazing lives of his parents and grandparents during the turbulent years of civil unrest under the quarrelsome warlords. Interestingly, Mo Yan sometimes gives brief one or two sentence summaries of events that occur later in the novel: surprisingly these do not diminish suspense for the reader and thereby detract from the telling of the story, but rather succeed as a stylistic literary device. Mo Yan embellishes the historical narrative with magical flourishes based on Chinese myth and legend though, except for one section in which a pack of dogs take on anthropomorphic qualities, these touches are not overdone and the realistic, historical basis of the tale is not compromised. The language and violence in Red Sorghum perfectly capture the strength of anti-Japanese fervour in China at the time, feelings that resonate to this day. Furthermore, by bringing this tale of three generations up to recent times, Mo Yan is able to offer some interesting conjecture on the inverse relationship between human values and material wealth. All in all, Red Sorghum is a compelling, blood-curdling epic that thoroughly entertains whilst giving insights into modern Chinese history.


The Keepers of Truth
The Keepers of Truth
by Michael Collins
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-crafted murder mystery in small-town Midwest, 27 May 2005
This review is from: The Keepers of Truth (Hardcover)
On one level 'The Keepers of Truth' is a well-crafted murder mystery set in a small town in America's midwest, in which Old Man Lawton has disappeared and everybody in the town is quick to point the blame at his trouble-making son, Ronny. Everybody that is except Bill, the local reporter for the town rag, 'The Truth', who seeks to discover just that. Bill is the unlikely hero and inspired narrator of this tale: he is a local, down on his luck after failing to get into law school and struggling to get over his father's suicide, who is able to rise above the gossip and jealousies of those around him. On a broader level, 'The Keepers of Truth' provides a perceptive portrayal of the social malaise in a late-70s industrial town, with factories closing and the local economy in terminal crisis. This portrayal includes memorable descriptions of late-night activity at Denny's: read this novel as a combo-meal with Eric Schlosser's non-fictional 'Fast Food Nation' and you'll never eat junk food again! Fairly obviously, the novel's setting makes for fairly bleak reading, punctuated occasionally by some humourous touches such as material concerning Darlene, the local beautician, and a number of guffaw-inducing headlines that Bill wishes he could write!! The only other Michael Collins novel that I have read to date is 'The Resurrectionists': both novels are particularly well-written with compelling storylines, whilst also confronting social issues head-on and leaving the reader with plenty to think about.


The Keepers of Truth
The Keepers of Truth
by Michael Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-crafted murder mystery in small-town Midwest, 27 May 2005
This review is from: The Keepers of Truth (Paperback)
On one level 'The Keepers of Truth' is a well-crafted murder mystery set in a small town in America's midwest, in which Old Man Lawton has disappeared and everybody in the town is quick to point the blame at his trouble-making son, Ronny. Everybody that is except Bill, the local reporter for the town rag, 'The Truth', who seeks to discover just that. Bill is the unlikely hero and inspired narrator of this tale: he is a local, down on his luck after failing to get into law school and struggling to get over his father's suicide, who is able to rise above the gossip and jealousies of those around him. On a broader level, 'The Keepers of Truth' provides a perceptive portrayal of the social malaise in a late-70s industrial town, with factories closing and the local economy in terminal crisis. This portrayal includes memorable descriptions of late-night activity at Denny's: read this novel as a combo-meal with Eric Schlosser's non-fictional 'Fast Food Nation' and you'll never eat junk food again! Fairly obviously, the novel's setting makes for fairly bleak reading, punctuated occasionally by some humourous touches such as material concerning Darlene, the local beautician, and a number of guffaw-inducing headlines that Bill wishes he could write!! The only other Michael Collins novel that I have read to date is 'The Resurrectionists': both novels are particularly well-written with compelling storylines, whilst also confronting social issues head-on and leaving the reader with plenty to think about.


Small Island: Winner of the 'best of the best' Orange Prize
Small Island: Winner of the 'best of the best' Orange Prize
by Andrea Levy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing tale of migrant experiences in Britain after WWII, 27 May 2005
Andrea Levy richly deserves the critical and popular success she has garnered for 'Small Island', seemingly scooping every prestigious literary prize around including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Whitbread Book of the Year. In short, 'Small Island' is a beautifully crafted novel that, in addition to being highly entertaining, provides absorbing insights into migrant experiences and racism in Britain in the immediate post-World War II years. 'Small Island' contains a lot of humourous touches, and equally some very moving passages involving both acts of racism and unexpected human kindness. The novel's impact is heightened by the use of first-person narratives by the engaging four main characters: Hortense, Gilbert, Queenie and Bernard. A minor criticism is that Bernard's narrative is introduced late into the novel and the detailed account of his wartime experiences is slightly less interesting than the other material in the novel. I would be intrigued to know how many endings Andrea Levy considered for 'Small Island', as the reader is left in total suspense to the very end as to the fate of the four characters that we have taken to our hearts. Entertaining, informative and thought-provoking: a must read.


The Reader
The Reader
by Prof Bernhard Schlink
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing love story raises challenging issues, 26 May 2005
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)
'The Reader' is the fictional memoir of Michael Berg, written straightforwardly in sparse, unemotional, highly readable language. The novel is simply yet effectively structured into three parts that progress chronologically. Broadly speaking, 'The Reader' opens with a beautifully told love story between the narrator, then aged fifteen, and a thirty-six year old female tram conductor, Hannah Schmitz. Michael attends Hanna's entire trial on war crime charges in Part II, whilst the final Part explores the aftermath of the trial for both Michael and Hanna.
In 'The Reader' legal and philosophical issues take centre stage. Schlink avoids making authorial judgments, opening up grey areas between the dichotomy of good and evil, and allowing readers full reign to ponder the various questions that are raised. Whilst Schlink's overall approach has much to recommend it, there is the danger that on key issues a range of interpretations could be taken and that 'The Reader' can be read as meaning all things to all readers.
The first issue raised in 'The Reader' concerns the appropriateness of Hanna and Michael's sexual relationship. Whilst it is impossible to comment accurately on the legality of their relationship in the hundred-and-ninety-odd countries of the world, particularly as some federated nations themselves consist of multiple criminal jurisdictions, it is suggested that their sexual relations would be illegal in many parts of the world and be subject to potentially heavy penalties. Hanna and Michael's relationship is portrayed simply as a love story through Part One, and it is entirely possible that Schlink - author, jurist and lawyer - is seeking to question sexual offences legislation in many parts of the world. Interestingly, this issue has received comparatively little attention in reviews of 'The Reader', arguably suggesting that existing criminal laws are out of step with the thoughts of the readership of this popular and critically-acclaimed novel. Despite the treatment of their relationship in Part One, there are nevertheless some indications in the novel that Michael's relationship with Hanna had negative effects on his emotional development, such as his estrangement from his family and peers, and his difficulties in forming stable relationships with women later in his life.
Secondly, the novel explores issues concerning the Holocaust, in particular the degree of Hanna's culpability for war crimes, and the attitudes of post-Nazi generations of Germans towards Germans, collectively and individually, that were adults during the Nazi era. In general terms, it is a strength of the book that Hanna gets a sympathetic airing of her wartime acts and omissions - largely because we see her through Michael's eyes and he remains in love with her. Schlink's successful examination of wartime issues can be seen as part of the process of Germany and Germans coming to terms with their past, although it has to be stressed that this has been happening for many years now in Germany. Indeed, Germany's recent sensitive handling of the sixtieth anniversaries of the liberation of a number of Nazi concentration camps, and the appointment of a German Archbishop to lead the global Catholic Church both suggest that the international community fully recognises Germany's atonement for its wartime acts.
Despite enjoying the storyline and treatment of issues in 'The Reader', a number of reservations exist. Firstly, whilst appreciating the generally sympathetic treatment accorded Hanna, she is never really given a voice to explain her actions - either in relation to her wartime activity or her relationship with Michael - and I thought this could have been achieved, either directly or indirectly, in Part Three. Secondly, I felt that characterisation development was sacrificed somewhat in order to make the story clear-cut and keep issues to the fore. Thirdly, I found a number of points of the plot fairly implausible, such as Hanna's illiteracy not being evident prior to the trial; Michael studying to become a lawyer; Michael chancing upon Hanna's trial and Hanna's lack of adequate legal representation given the gravity of the charges (consider, for example, the difficulty that Milosevic, a trained lawyer, had in dismissing his counsel).
The praise lavished upon this novel has been quite extraordinary - it's even a bit overwhelming and daunting to plough through selected comments on the way to page one! Whilst 'The Reader' may not fully meet all the hype, I would nevertheless heartily recommend it as an entertaining and thought-provoking look into contemporary attitudes to Germany's Nazi past. Furthermore, for those particularly interested in this issue, Gunter Grass's exceptional recent novel 'Crabwalk' would make a perfect companion novel to 'The Reader'.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 23, 2009 9:55 AM BST


The Book Against God
The Book Against God
by James Wood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book about God and modern relationships, 26 May 2005
This review is from: The Book Against God (Paperback)
'The Book Against God' is a particularly satisfying read on two levels: first, in considering arguments both for and against the existence of God, and secondly as a funny, perceptive and intelligent analysis of the relationships of a contemporary man with his wife and ageing parents. The narrator, Thomas Bunting, is a philosophy lecturer (of sorts) who manages to be endearing despite a number of character flaws including compulsive lying and suspect personal hygiene! Thomas is experiencing writer's block on the PhD thesis that he is supposed to be labouring on - but has no such problem writing secretly on his pet project, his BAG - Book Against God. (This novel is an absolute must for anybody who has ever dreaded asking or responding to the question 'How is the thesis going?')
'The Book Against God' is extremely well written with totally convincing characterisation and dialogue. A number of the central characters have a strong interest in philosophical and theological issues that Woods consequently weaves seamlessly into the narrative. The main plotline charts the souring in relations between Thomas and his pianist wife, Jane Sheridan. As an added bonus, characters such as Jane and musical know-it-all Roger Trelawnay facilitate interesting discussions regarding the nexus between music and spirituality/god. The secondary plotline concerns Thomas's relations with his loving parents Peter and Sarah, and particularly Thomas's inability to profess outright atheism to his parish priest father despite the latter's willingness to question accepted church teaching. All in all, 'The Book Against God' is highly recommended as an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 14, 2010 6:06 PM BST


Paradise
Paradise
by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coming of Age in a Changing Africa, 25 May 2005
This review is from: Paradise (Paperback)
'Paradise' is the coming of age story of Yusuf, a twelve-year old boy when the story opens in an East Africa on the brink of change with the Anglo-German conflict of the First World War looming. The young Yusuf is indentured to the rich trader Aziz, who Yusuf believes to be his uncle, in order to pay off his father's debts. As the story develops, Yusuf gets to experience being a part of the trading caravans that linked the diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups of the region during this bygone era. Against the background of a changing world, the maturing Yusuf must start to make some decisions on the direction of his own life....
'Paradise' contains a number of interesting characters: the good-natured banter between Sikh Harbans Singh (Kalasinga) and Muslim Hamid Suleiman is a real treat, as is the interaction between Yusuf and similarly indentured shopkeeper Khalil. Undoubtedly, the stand-out feature of 'Paradise' is Gurnah's beautiful poetic prose: every aspect of this novel was completely mesmerising from the first word to the last. 'Paradise' succeeds on many levels: as a coming of age story; commentary on slavery and colonialism; tale of travel and adventure in a past world; and story dealing with first-love and friendships. 'Paradise' was short-listed for the Booker back in '94 and richly deserves a continued wide readership. I hope to read more of Gurnah's work, and have bought Gurnah's critically acclaimed 'By the Sea' on the strength of my enchantment with 'Paradise'.


Paradise
Paradise
by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coming of Age in a Changing Africa, 25 May 2005
This review is from: Paradise (Paperback)
'Paradise' is the coming of age story of Yusuf, a twelve-year old boy when the story opens in an East Africa on the brink of change with the Anglo-German conflict of the First World War looming. The young Yusuf is indentured to the rich trader Aziz, who Yusuf believes to be his uncle, in order to pay off his father's debts. As the story develops, Yusuf gets to experience being a part of the trading caravans that linked the diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups of the region during this bygone era. Against the background of a changing world, the maturing Yusuf must start to make some decisions on the direction of his own life....
'Paradise' contains a number of interesting characters: the good-natured banter between Sikh Harbans Singh (Kalasinga) and Muslim Hamid Suleiman is a real treat, as is the interaction between Yusuf and similarly indentured shopkeeper Khalil. Undoubtedly, the stand-out feature of 'Paradise' is Gurnah's beautiful poetic prose: every aspect of this novel was completely mesmerising from the first word to the last. 'Paradise' succeeds on many levels: as a coming of age story; commentary on slavery and colonialism; tale of travel and adventure in a past world; and story dealing with first-love and friendships. 'Paradise' was short-listed for the Booker back in '94 and richly deserves a continued wide readership. I hope to read more of Gurnah's work, and have bought Gurnah's critically acclaimed 'By the Sea' on the strength of my enchantment with 'Paradise'.


Breakfast on Pluto
Breakfast on Pluto
by Patrick McCabe
Edition: Paperback

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Search for belonging in the �60s and �70s, 24 May 2005
This review is from: Breakfast on Pluto (Paperback)
'Breakfast on Pluto' introduces Patrick 'Pussy' Braden, born in 1955 in an Irish border village of Tyreelin in the thick of political trouble, and dumped unceremoniously into the care of Hairy Ma Braden, 'the Baby Farmer' leaving a young Patrick to work out his origins and develop a sense of belonging. This is very much Pussy's story - transvestite, cabaret performer, prostitute and self-described 'sad nutty fairy' - scribbled down with inimitable style as Pussy struggles to find meaning in his life in London through the '60s and '70s. I had some trouble empathising overly with Pussy's situation, especially as he uses people in much the same way as they use him. Pussy's increasingly drugged-up narration makes it hard work for the reader to separate fact from fiction and, whilst overall McCabe has fairly convincingly captured Pussy's voice, the tone wasn't as incisive, acerbic or downright bitchy as I would expect from a drag performer used to defending their appearance or a sex-worker leading a rough life.
Curiously, a number of chapters of 'Breakfast on Pluto' concern IRA events in which Pussy has no direct involvement - indeed, the main narrative of Pussy's story seems largely, almost entirely, disconnected from IRA issues. Nevertheless, in terms of content, these chapters are amongst the most interesting and effective in the book: Pussy's childhood friend Irwin Kerr would have made a particularly interesting character for further development. Despite suffering somewhat from structural and character-development problems, overall, 'Breakfast on Pluto' is a challenging and entertaining read: as an added bonus, Pussy's narrative comes with its own soundtrack of the times that guarantees going to bed humming classics like 'Heard it Through the Grapevine' or Lindsay de Paul's 'Sugar Me'.


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