Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995]★★★★1/2

In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.

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Review: The Sea and Poison by Shūsaku Endō

The Sea and Poison [1958/92] – ★★★★

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” (Albert Einstein).

Go where the pain is” (Anne Rice).

Japan, the last months of the World War II. The city of Fukuoka, nestling in the Hakata Bay, has been experiencing air raids for quite some time, and its hospital finds itself stretched to the limits as its never-ending line of mostly dying patients is always at the door, riddled with many diseases, worsened by hunger and despair. But one day is no ordinary day for this hospital. Unbeknown to many, the Second Surgery is preparing for a secret vivisection operation on American soldiers taken prisoners by the Japanese, and the goal is to test the limits of air and saline that can be injected into humans before they die. Those who are involved in the operation are not some evil monsters or serial killers on the loose, though. They are some of the most respected people in the institution, as well as their dedicated supporting medical personnel. Through the perspectives of two interns – sensitive Suguro and cynical Toda, as well as haunted-by-traumatic-past Nurse Ueda, Endō shows us how easily the unimaginable can unfold when conditions are led by war-time nihilism and actions are prompted by apathy, despair, helplessness and self-interest. Based on a true story (see this article), Shūsaku Endō’s book is as intense as it is disturbing, but at its core is still a touching message to always preserve the spirit of humanity and compassion even in the most highly-pressured and hopeless environments.

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Review: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino

How Do You Live? [1937/82/2021] – ★★★★★

This classic Japanese YA book is now being adapted into an animation by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away (2001)) since it was his favourite childhood book. This story focuses on a naturally inquisitive high-school student Junichi Honda (nicknamed “Copper”) and his three friends: quiet Mizutani, outspoken Kitami and kind Uragawa. With his uncle acting as a guide, Copper learns important life lessons and discovers things that would enable him to become a better human being in future. We are shown little episodes in Copper’s life as the boy starts to understand the importance of friendship, kindness, thankfulness and acceptance, and the wrongs of bullying, cowardice and discrimination. Often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince [1943], How Do You Live? is an unforgettable book with a heart and a soul.

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Review: Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante

Arturo’s Island [1957/2019] – ★★★★

This coming-of-age story won the 1957 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, but this review is of a newer translation by Ann Goldstein. The book tells of a fourteen-year-old boy Arturo Gerace living in Procida, Bay of Naples, Italy some time before the World War II. Growing up without his mother and with often absent father Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo is still happy to spend his days without rules or schedules running wild around the island, imagining being an adult and embarking on some sea adventure that would bring him eternal glory. That is until his father, whom Arturo idolises, brings home his new sixteen-year-old bride Nunziata. From that point on, Arturo’s world will never be the same and the shift in the household’s dynamics means that Arturo can finally confront his deepest subconscious traumas with a chance to experience both the joys and sorrows of secret love. Morante’s tale is deceptively simple, and is more psychological than first assumed. It evokes all the delights of childhood wonder and the longings of adolescence, the feelings of endless summers and the atmosphere of mysterious, isolated lands surrounded by aquamarine seas.

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Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós 

The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] – ★★★★★

“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].

Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias [1888] and The Crime of Father Amaro [1875] are among my favourite books of all time. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains is de Queiroz’s much later novel about the life of Portuguese nobleman Jacinto de Tormes as told from the perspective of his best friend Zé Fernandes. The novel starts in Paris, France (the City) and ends in Tormes, Portugal (the Mountains), presenting a vivid contrast between the busy, money and technology-driven Parisian lifestyle, on the one hand, and the quiet, simple, filled with natural beauty, mode of life in the countryside, on the other. As important as this duality is the psychology of Jacinto de Tormes, a man of great means and even bigger opportunities. However, it turns out that it is not so easy to figure out the purpose of a thing called Life and the quest for ultimate knowledge may not lie in the most obvious of places. Thus, this charming book on duality and human transformation is many things: a delicate city satire, a study of fin de siècle societal eccentricities, a heart-warming presentation of lifelong friendship, and, finally, a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Portuguese countryside.

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Review: The Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

The Luzhin Defense [1929] – ★★★★★

Of all my Russian books, The Luzhin Defense contains and diffuses the greatest “warmth”, which may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract Chess is supposed to be” (Vladimir Nabokov).

This was an audio-book which I listened to in its original language, Russian. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s only third novel in Russian (he wrote his last series of books in English), but it impressed me hugely. In this book, the author imagines the life of a once chess prodigy and now a respected retired man Alexander Luzhin, and, while the first part of the book is a touching coming-of-age story of one talented but misunderstood and lonely boy, the second half of the story is a penetrating study of one eccentric, increasingly mentally-confused man who still tries to accustom himself to the society that, surprisingly to him, is far from chess rules and boards. Through this character study, which is both tender and ironic, tragic and farcical, Nabokov underscores the parasitic relationship of madness to genius, as he also unveils a deeply sympathetic situation of one man always in the midst of a battle to lead a life which seems natural to him.

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Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit [1857] ★★★★

In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House [1852] or Dombey and Son [1857], but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.

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Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair/Kristina Gehrmann

The Jungle [1906/2018] ★★★★★

 “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is enough” (Dr. Wess Stafford).

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca).

This graphic novel is based on a classic novel by Upton Sinclair The Jungle [1906] that tells of a Lithuanian family of immigrants who arrive to Chicago, Illinois in 1899 and find their hopes slowly turning to dust as they all take jobs exploiting them and their desperate need to survive in the foreign country. Jurgis Rudkus is a twenty-one year old man eager to work at any job in America and soon finds himself in a meat-processing factory, working in very unhygienic and even horrifying environment. His fiancée Ona starts working in packaging, while her cousin Marija begins painting cans, and even Jurgis’s elderly father tries to land some job in order not to be dependent on others, among other family members. This family comprising of three generations is soon hit very hard by the “hidden costs” of their American Dream, which becomes very hard to bear, especially when most factories close in winter and the mercilessness of the family’s employers and landlords leads to traumatic experiences. Though I have not yet read the original novel by Sinclair, I found this graphic adaptation deeply moving, offering an uncomfortable, yet valuable insight into Sinclair’s vision and the conditions of blue-collar workers in early twentieth-century Chicago.

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Review: Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé

Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★

Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes a centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passions, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction. In the process, the author uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.  

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Review: The Moon and The Bonfire by Cesare Pavese

The Moon and The Bonfire [1949/68/2002] – ★★★★

“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”, so a proverb states. The Moon and The Bonfire is a deeply personal final novel by Italian author Cesare Pavese in which he tells the story of Anguila, a successful businessman, who returns from California to his native country Italy after years and years of absence. Never knowing his real mother and father, Anguila grew up in a foster family in one Piedmontese village near river Belbo in the north of Italy. Abandoned from birth and poor, he had to endure a rough childhood that was only somewhat brightened by his friendship with an older boy Nuto and his fascination with the beautiful daughters of his later master. Now, after years of absence, Anguila decides to reconnect with the land he once called home because after all – “there is no place like home”, or is there? Poverty, war and moral degradation had all left their mark on the region that was once Anguila’s whole world and his detailed re-evaluation of the past, spent desires and dashed hopes leads to surprising conclusions.  

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Review: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered World [1906/65] – ★★★★1/2

Thank heaven for all those who, in devious ways by their art, bring tranquillity to the world, and enrich men’s hearts.

In this novel by famous Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916), a young painter travels the country in search of a source of true artistic inspiration, tying to be completely dispassionate about everything he sees. In his journey “to rise above emotions” and conquer his earthy desires he has the aim to reach the state of total objectivity so that his brush will be able to paint only the “truth” and “bare life”. However, when he stops briefly at a guesthouse of one Shioda in a hot-spring village of Nakoi, he encounters there a woman who may put a stop to all of his pretences to be an unemotional observer and a mere spectator of life. O-Nami is a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who has recently escaped her impoverished husband and may have had an affair with a local Buddhist priest. Intrigued by this woman and engulfed in the sheer beauty of the nature around him, our narrator plunges deep into the very heart of the meaning of art, poetry and life itself. The Three-Cornered World is a gentle novel of deep insights with intimate meditations on life and art, its secrets and manifestations.

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Review: Havoc by Tom Kristensen

Havoc [1930/68] – ★★★★1/2

Franz Kafka wrote: “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If we take this definition of a book then Kristensen’s Havoc comes out on top. Havoc is now considered a classic of Danish literature and, accordingly to one author, “one of the best novels to ever come out of Scandinavia”. The main character here is Ole Jastrau, a thirty-something literary critic living with his wife and small child in Copenhagen, Denmark, a city that is going through some kind of a political upheaval. Disillusioned with his work and desperately searching for meaning in his day-to-day existence, Jastrau starts to slowly succumb to the rhetoric of his eccentric friends (Catholics, communists and poets) and also to the only thing that starts to make sense in his life – alcohol. Jastrau sees his apartment being taken over by others, his addiction to the popular Bar des Artistes growing daily and his faithfulness to the core moral principles of life crumbling before his eyes. Will there be a limit to Jastrau’s “fall” and humiliation? Can there be hope amidst all the boundless despair? With his razor-sharp prose, Kristensen paints a vivid picture of an ordinary man on a swift ride to hell.

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Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] – ★★★★★

But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray

(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).

Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.

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Review: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener [1930] ★★★★

London, the 1920s. James Wrexham is a lonely thirty-eight year old man just barely bearing his daily job and with no enviable prospects before him. A merely “spectator of life”, he has already resigned to just watch his life go by when he notices an advertisement in The Times. A certain wealthy gentleman, Jonathan Scrivener, seeks a personal secretary for himself and Wrexham applies on a whim. To his delight, he is accepted for an interview with one lawyer and soon given the position despite never having met the man. Scrivener is allegedly abroad and Wrexham starts his duties in his luxurious apartment on a very generous salary. If these circumstances were not odd enough already, a number of Scrivener’s supposed friends then come barging through the door and each has their own incredulous story to tell about Scrivener. Wrexham’s life turns upside down in a matter of weeks as he transforms from a lonely and desperate man to a social butterfly enjoying a life that only the very wealthy can afford. But, questions still remain – who is Jonathan Scrivener, a supposedly brilliant eccentric? Why is he hiding? What purpose may he have in hiring Wrexham? And why do Scrivener’s friends all give contradictory accounts about the man? I am Jonathan Scrivener is a deeply psychological mystery novel, “a hall of broken mirrors”-type of a book whose many elements need careful reassembling.

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Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James

This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.

Daisy Miller [1879] ★★★1/2

Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw [1898]) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.

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Review: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Foucault’s Pendulum [1988/89] – ★★★★

“…the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little” [Umberto Eco/William Weaver, Vintage Press: 1988/89: 33].

Trying to review Foucault’s Pendulum is like trying to write with your left-hand (if you are right-handed, that is) – an enormous task which will not probably be very successful. Through one dense, rich and enigmatic narrative, Umberto Eco tells the story of Casaubon (our narrator) and his friendship with two employees of a publishing house Garamond Press – Belbo and Diotallevi. This trio of intellectuals, who are simply in love with all kinds of knowledge, historic mysteries and brainy puzzles, start their own intellectual “game” of drawing connections with seemingly unrelated things using one clever word-processing machine and a suggestion from one Colonel Ardenti which concerns the order of the Knights Templar and perhaps mysterious resemblances. Little do they know that their amassed knowledge will be too diverse and their power of belief – too strong for a game which started on a whim and so childishly. When certain deaths and disappearances occur as they the trio’s search for their ultimate and absolute truth continues, it may be already too late to seek the way out. But is Eco’s story even about that? Perhaps it is about something else too, and about something else, and, equally, about something else. From the intellectual hub of Milan to esoteric, mysterious corners of Brazil, Umberto Eco takes the reader on one uncanny literary journey and presents a narrative which informs, surprises and exhilarates, as it also confounds, exhausts and overwhelms.

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Review: The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The Erasers [1953/1964] ★★★★

French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922 –2008) was one of the main proponents of the experimental Nouveau Roman (French New Novel) style in literature. In this book of his, translated from the French by Richard Howard, the story concerns special agent Wallas who arrives to one obscure Flemish town to investigate the murder of one Professor Dupont. He is only yet another one dead in the series of gruesome murders that have already been committed in town: “in nine days, nine violent deaths have occurred one after another, of which at least six are definitely murders” [Robbe-Grillet/Howard, 1953/64: 57]. One possible witness is Professor Dupont’s housekeeper Madame Smite, but she cannot provide any help. On the scene was also Doctor Juard who took the victim, the wounded man, to the hospital where he allegedly died. Commissioner Laurent and Wallas have started a murder investigation, seeking an assassin, but was there even a murder? Was there even an assassin? Then, there emerges one horrifying and unbelievable possibility – did the guilty man himself [took] charge of the investigation? [1953/64: 200].What is the truth? The Erasers is a mystery novel that constantly questions reality, offering multiple perspectives on the same situation. It is a refreshingly different, kaleidoscopic murder mystery that puts the absurdity and the ambiguity front and centre.

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Mini-Review: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

The Tartar Steppe [1940/2018] – ★★★★1/2

First published in 1940 and translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood, this novel is about young and idealistic Giovanni Drogo, a newly appointed Officer to Fort Bastiani, an obscure mountainous place near the country’s frontier. Drogo is excited about his first posting and hurries to his destination eagerly wanting to put to the test his soldiery skills, valour and discipline, as well as begin his new life. However, what awaits him is the unexpected: “the desolate steppe…which had mystery, but no meaning”, where “people [have] no knowledge of time” and where “everything [speaks] of renunciation” [Buzzati/Hood, 1945/1973: 22, 72, 82]. Fort Bastiani is a place in the middle of nowhere where no enemy has been seen since time immemorial. Drogo soon feels rebellious, then depressed and lonely, and is finally completely enchanted by nothingness. The Tartar Steppe is a masterful and subtle work which echoes the best work of Franz Kafka. It is a story about the traps that time lays to a man, about dashed hopes and missed life opportunities, and is a profound meditation on prisons that reside in the recesses of our own minds, in our beloved habits and dear ideals which we can never seem to cast aside no matter how nonsensical they may start to appear.

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Review: Clyde Fans by Seth

Clyde Fans [2019] – ★★★★1/2

Seth (real name Gregory Gallant) is a Canadian cartoonist whose artistic style is said to remind of The New Yorker cartoons of the 1930s-40s. Inspired by a real business that was once in operation in Toronto, his graphic novel Clyde Fans follows a non-linear plot and two very different brothers (extraverted Abe and introverted Simon), whose father left them his business selling electric fans. The pair responds differently to the changing business environment, social demands and times and, in this story, we trace their lives through the life of a company that came to define them and their family, following them through their hopes and dreams, initial successes, bankruptcies, family tragedies and growing desperation fuelled by years of buried pride and reluctance to welcome the future. This reflective picture novel takes a very close look at nostalgia and asks whether there is something precious being lost every time we decide to walk with the changing times, or ahead of them. From the wisdom of the old age to “commercial” loneliness and misunderstandings faced in one’s youth, the novel asks – what is “success”, and what is “failure” in life? What is the nature of time and what it means to finally come to grips with its passage? How time changes us, or does not? Clyde Fans is a deeply-felt work about human memories, making sense of the past and the anguish of passing years and lost hopes, a tribute to one once-commercially successful and ambitious little world that is no more.

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Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady [1923] – ★★★★1/2

Her eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight that he had not found in life. “I know where it is”, they seemed to say, “I could show you!“….She had always the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” [Willa Cather, 1923: 136, 137].

I was impressed with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927], which I read in spring, and have now decided to try out another book by her. I ended up liking A Lost Lady even more than Death Comes for the Archbishop. The novel’s location is Sweet Water, a town in the “American West”, which is one of the hubs of the transcontinental railroad business activity. Marian Forrester, the young wife of successful Captain Daniel Forrester, holds a fascination for the entire community of Sweet Water, from the most hardened, aging businessmen to the children of local grocery men. Mrs. Forrester only comes to town to stay for her summer holidays, but her name is well-known and her coming is eagerly anticipated, especially by young Neil Herbert, the nephew of Judge Pommeroy. Mrs. Forrester is, indeed, “bewitching”, the very definition of charm, grace and sophistication, “belonging to a different world”, “with a glance that made one’s blood tingle” [Cather, 1923: 38]. Amidst challenging times for the community, with financial hardship in sight for everyone, can Marian Forrester and her “elegant” world of principles survive? And then, who Mrs. Forrester really is? A Lost Lady may not be a classic book with a fully fledged plot that spans hundreds of pages and unforgettable twists, but probably that is where its charm lies – in its deceptively simple, beautifully-written story that reveals slowly its quiet character study that, in turn, has the ability to provoke and move.

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Review: The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn

The Employees [2018/2020] – ★★★★

You know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have.Jose Saramago

This book, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021, focuses on our distant dystopian future and on the Six-Thousand Ship, a space vessel on an exploration mission into space. When the crew stops to explore a previously unknown planet named New Discovery, they take certain live “objects” on board with them. Little the crew suspects that these objects will have a powerful, unforeseen effect on each member of the personnel onboard, and that means on both humans and humanoid robots. Composed entirely of (increasingly disturbing) statements given by the employees on the Six-Thousand Ship, The Employees by Danish author Olga Ravn may have a rather “boring” title, but this book is anything but that. Probably influenced in some way by both Lem’s sci-fi Solaris [1961] and the fiction of Philip K. Dick, The Employees offers a visceral, uncanny reading experience.

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Review: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante) [1957] – ★★★1/2

The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities [1972]), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.

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Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig

Letter from an Unknown Woman [1922]★★★★★

The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.

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Mini-Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Tuesday Nights in 1980 [2016] – ★★★★

I would like to thank Cathy at 746books for recommending this book to me after I compiled list 7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art. Tuesday Nights in 1980 presents New York City’s art scene of 1980. At the centre are three people whose destinies collide in the background of creative bohemia filled with liberties of all kinds, boundless artistic inspiration and ambition, and spurs of unusual creativity: James Bennett is a misunderstood person and a renowned art critic who has synaesthesia, a condition which means that he experiences ideas, people and objects as colours or a combination of colours; Raul Engales is a “free spirit” and up-and-coming Argentinean artist who left behind in his country one past better not recalled; and Lucy Olliason is a girl from Idaho who has just recently arrived to NYC and is open to everything and anything. Evocatively, even if exaggeratedly, Molly Prentiss captures in her story the thrill of being young and artistic in NYC, which itself starts to undergo many changes. Amidst obsessive art-making and pleasures of falling in love, there are also a transitory nature of success, creative doubts and personal tragedies.

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Review: Fires on the Plain by Shōhei Ōoka

Fires on the Plain [1951] –  ★★★★1/2

This book review is my second contribution to the Japanese Literature Challenge 14 hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza. Winner of the prestigious Yomiuri Prize, Fires on the Plain details the experience of a Japanese soldier in the Philippines during the last months of the World War II (the Leyte island landing). This sometimes gruesome and traumatic, but vividly introspective and unputdowanable novel full of conviction is filled with psychological and philosophical insights. Drawing from his own experience of the WWII, Shōhei Ōoka wrote about the degradation, futility and meaninglessness of war through the experience of one injured and stranded soldier who gets suspended between complete despair, increasing apathy and little choice, but to commit war crimes, on the one hand, and glimpses of hope and religious visions, on the other. Plagued by contradictions and irrational thoughts, Private Tamura finds himself psychologically distancing from war horrors around him, as Ōoka makes a powerful statement on one situation where such concepts as morality or rationality no longer seem to have any meaning. Fires on the Plain is probably one of the most important anti-war novels ever written.

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Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun [2021] – ★★★

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend) or a highly advanced girl-robot created to be a companion for a child. Together with another AF Rosa, Klara spends her time shifting positions inside the store in a hope that some child will eventually choose her and she will fulfil her destiny. Relying on and worshipping the Sun, Klara never misses an opportunity to catch its rays: “…the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment” [Ishiguro, 2021: 5]. She is both puzzled by and interested in humans. Then comes Josie, a kind, but sick child. As Klara enters Josie’s world, she gets to know more about humans and life, including its sorrows and unpredictability.

Klara and the Sun is Toy Story (together with the toy’s existential crisis) meets Never Let Me Go by way of one robot’s obsession with the Sun. It is a bitter-sweet and curious book with one fascinating narrator and a theme of hope. However, it also has a very “thin” story with vague world-building, severely under-explored themes, and characters and topics “recycled” from the author’s Never Let Me Go. A torrent of never-ending and sometimes pointless dialogue in the story does little service to Ishiguro, an author who is capable of far greater depth, nuance, subtlety, emotion, evocativeness and intelligence, than he delivered in this latest trendy, crowd-pleasing, YA-like book.

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Review: Property by Valerie Martin

Property [2003] – ★★★★

Louisiana, 1828. Manon Gaudet, the wife of a domineering owner of a sugar plantation, tells us about her life, at times recalling her past. Her husband rules the house and the plantation with an iron fist, signalling slave girl Sarah as his lover. However, their stable life is soon repeatedly threatened by slaves’ rebellions in their region, making both re-evaluate their life positions. Although the novel is uneven and the narrator is made intentionally unlikeable, Valerie Martin still wrote a chilling, eye-opening and interesting account of slavery and the meaning of ownership in the mid-nineteenth century US, not least because of her particular focus on the perspective of a slave-owner.

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Review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop [1927] – ★★★★

This novel, which spans from 1848 to 1888, focuses on Jean Marie Latour, a young Frenchman recently appointed as a Vicar Apostolic in the state of New Mexico, a part of land which has only recently been annexed to the US. The Father becomes a new Bishop in the region and he came there with his loyal friend and compatriot Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests face a whole array of problems in establishing a religious jurisdiction in the new area, from the region’s isolation and merciless climate to authority challenges on the part of Mexican priests. This historical novel can be called a “descriptive tour de force”, rather than a straightforward narrative story. It is more of an anthropological/historical travelogue, focusing on the nature of land and on the people living on it, rather than a linear story. However, this does not make this book a “lesser” novel. On the contrary, Cather leaves plenty of space in the book for colourful descriptions of exotic environs, paying attention to the particular themes, including the ardour of religious duty and the dilemmas of missionary work.

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Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].

In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.

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Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

In this novel, Grace, an impressionable, recently-educated girl, “who has been around cultivated folks” arrives home to a small village of Little Hintock after a long absence and to the delight of her father Mr Melbury, a timber merchant. She soon rekindles her friendship with her childhood sweet-heart Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider farmer. However, as soon as she does so, she also notices a much more promising suitor who starts to intrigue her more than anyone else in this world: an educated, ambitious and “irresistible” doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Thomas Hardy’s narrative is like an exquisite painting created in a style of Old Masters, where money, ambition, sophistication, self-interest and the excess of knowledge clash violently with rural simplicity, kindness, loyalty and naïve mentality. The beauty/mastery of the prose is matched by the gripping plot full of vivid characters and psychological nuances. Emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the social classes and drawing attention to the iron confines of a marriage, while evoking the atmosphere of the old rural England, Hardy created with The Woodlanders the work that is on a par with some of his greatest literary creations – Tess of the d’Urbervilles [1891] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874].

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Mini-Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet [2010] – ★★1/2

In this tale by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas (2004)) the year is 1799, and Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives with the Dutch East India Company to the trading post of Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan at the time of the sakoku, when Japan permitted only very limited contact with foreigners. Engaged to be married, de Zoet seeks a fortune and a high position to impress the family of his fiancée in Europe. However, “inadvertently”, he falls under the spell of one disfigured midwife Miss Aibagawa, who, in turn, aspires to knowledge and then freedom. In times of all kinds of persecutions and discriminatory policies, de Zoet has to navigate a very uneasy road in the foreign country through cultural differences and alleged conspiracies.

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Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

In The Scapegoat, two complete look-alikes switch places and we follow the Englishman John as he reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. Previously somewhat shy and leading an uneventful life, John is unexpectedly thrust into the very limelight of life, acquiring a big family overnight, but also overbearing responsibilities and a failing business. As this is a Daphne du Maurier book, this is no ordinary tale of switched identities. In this tale, we step into an atmosphere that is haunting and unsettling, into a strange château peopled by still stranger people whose complex relationships and buried secrets first puzzle and then “liberate” our protagonist. Blending wonderfully the surreal and the realist, Daphne du Maurier created a fascinating psychological situation, a deep and intricate central character study and vivid minor characters, while touching on such themes as the nature of identity, the unpredictability of the human nature, the meaning of a family and the importance of forgiveness. With du Maurier, readers know that they are in the safe and confident hands of a master who will deliver something subtle, unsettling and over and above their expectations.

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Review: The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

The Roots of Heaven (Les Racines du ciel) [1956/57] – ★★★★1/2

The Roots of Heaven, the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is set deep in the wilderness of Africa just after the WWII when the complex geopolitical situation meant a world on the brink of an explosion from the collusion of different interests, values and opinions. In this world, amidst all the criticisms levelled at colonialism, cries for African independence and still fresh horrors of the Nazi regime, there emerges a candle of “hope” in the form of one idealistic Frenchman – Morel, whose passion for the protection of elephants soon reaches mythical proportions in the region around Chad. He soon gathers around the most unlikely champions to ban the slaughter of elephants, for example Minna, a woman who suffered much during the Fall of Berlin, and Forsythe, an American who was dishonourably discharged from the army. Morel, equipped only with the belief that his cause will attract public sympathy, faces a lot of adversaries, such as the reality itself, as well as numerous people who hunt for business, pleasure and trophies. Because of his eccentricities and naïve outlooks, Morel is soon converted into a symbol of dignity and liberation, even though his enemies are already closing in on his noble campaign and it is far from certain what will be the real consequences of his increasingly drastic actions. Through Gary’s dense narrative and second-hand accounts, we can piece together a powerful story about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of one unshakeable belief, all coming from the author whose own life was probably more illustrious than any fiction he wrote.

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Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi [2020] – ★★★★

Piranesi is a new fantasy novel by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]. This time, we have a diary-like narrative and our narrator observes, records and catalogues a curious World around him – the House. In the House, architectural splendours meet natural wonders – sea Tides, bringing marine life and vegetation, often flood the seemingly infinite number of opulent Halls, where numerous enigmatic statues of all sizes daze and confuse. Our narrator’s only human contact is the man only known as the Other, who also often frequents the Halls and who sees the World very differently from our narrator. Then, cryptic messages start to appear in some Halls, and our narrator witnesses strange visions. What other mysteries does the House hold, and is there really a Sixteenth Person who may be residing in the Far-Distant Halls? These are the questions that start to bother our narrator as he is slowly forced to question the very nature of his existence in this bewildering World of Tides and Architectural Beauty. In Piranesi, Susanna Clarke invented one mysterious, otherworldly place whose pull is irresistible, powerful and inescapable, and whose charm works like magic, saturating the reading experience with endless wonder, delight and fascination. Amidst all the watery and architectural beauty, though, there is a want for slightly more meaning and depth, and it is unfortunate that the second part of the book falls into some very familiar and overused literary “thriller” tropes.

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Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 [2009/2010] – ★★

This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.

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Review: Dr Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick

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Dr Bloodmoney [1965] – ★★★1/2

Dr Bloodmoney is a wildly imaginative sci-fi book which is set in distant future after a nuclear disaster left the society with new adaptive technologies, shocking mutations, inverted priorities and the hatred for one person who is deemed responsible for bringing it all about: Dr Bluthgeld (Dr Bloodmoney), a deranged physicist who went into hiding. One person who knows his real identity and location is Bonny Keller, the beautiful wife of a successful school principal, and Stuart McConchie, an unfortunate salesman, may also be starting to guess correctly. Meanwhile, orbiting around Earth is the “voice of wisdom” – Walter Dangerfield, and previously marginalised and ridiculed disabled person Hoppy Harrington seems to see his fortunes turn with prospects to gain enviable influence in the community. Although this increasingly disturbing tale from Philip K. Dick is an unfocused one with a questionable ending, it is also an enjoyable literary ride into one of a kind “end-of-the-world” chaos filled with colourful characters and a through-provoking satire on the survival of a community in times of a crisis.

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Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree [2018] – ★★★

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut book in which she tells the story of seven-year old Chula and her family living in the 1990s in Bogotá, Colombia in the shadows of the unpredictable world of Pablo Escobar and his incessant spree of violence. In Contreras’s book, two sides of Colombia come face-to-face when the relatively well-to-do family of Chula hires a live-in maid Petrona, a young girl who lives in extreme poverty on the very fringes of Colombian society. Chula tries to penetrate the mystery that is Petrona, and when she tries to guess Petrona’s secrets, the cruel world that once seemed so far away to Chula’s family comes knocking right on their door. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an emotional story that is also very personal to the author as she tries her best to capture the world of a child living in frightening conditions. However, it is also an imperfect book whose two points of view prevent the story from reaching its full potential. Overwritten, with its weak symbolism of el Borrachero and an even weaker main characters’ connection, Fruit of the Drunken Tree may generally be said to be a book of lost opportunity.

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Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

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Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] – ★★★★★

This is my fourth Balzac (after Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep & Cousin Bette) and it is probably the best of the other novels I have read so far. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot or Old Goriot) centres on one young man from France’s provinces, Eugène de Rastignac, who has just settled in Paris and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. He desires to climb the social ladder fast and his impatience for money, status and power soon makes him cross paths with one impoverished father of two daughters (old Goriot) who selflessly devotes his remaining time to them (or, more accurately, to the memory of them). From richly-decorated Parisian drawing-rooms to the bedlam that reigns in a poverty-stricken lodging house, the result of this crossing of the paths is a thrilling head-to-head collision of reality and illusion, youth and old age, ruthless selfishness and selfless devotion, all happening at the very heart of turbulent and exploitative Paris of 1819.

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Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

The Betrothed [1827/1972] – ★★★★★

The Betrothed is an Italian classic by Alessandro Manzoni, the man who happened to be the grandson of Cesare Beccaria, the world-famous criminologist and philosopher. The novel is set in medieval Italy where two lovers (Renzo and Lucia) are prevented from marrying by a cowardly priest. From this flows all sorts of misunderstandings and advances from corrupt regimes as the two lovers are trying to overcome numerous obstacles and go through life trials (including a war, a plague and famine) on their path to a reunion. Beautifully translated from the Italian by Bruce Penman and boasting colourful and memorable characters, this classic tale from Italy is about undying love, faith, hope and perseverance in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair.

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Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [1958] – ★★★★1/2

Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies [1954] by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.

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Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb

fear-and-tremblingFear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★

Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes.   Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb”

Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dog coverThe Power of the Dog [1967] – ★★★★

“…there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of [the] pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath [Thomas Savage, 1967: 76].

This book is by an underappreciated American author Thomas Savage, and Jane Campion (The Piano (1993)), one of my favourite film directors, is currently shooting an adaptation of it. The story takes place in a small town in Montana in the 1920s where two brothers’ interests clash when one of them unexpectedly decides to marry a widow with a son. Raw, uncanny and psychological, The Power of the Dog is probably known for its intense character study of Phil Burbank, whose brooding and quietly menacing presence haunts the pages of this book, making it virtually unforgettable. Thomas Savage undoubtedly drew from his own previous experience of working as a ranch hand to produce a different kind of a western, whose deep sensitivity to the characters and their dynamics is nicely offset by the “harsh” authenticity of the language.  Continue reading “Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage”

Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker

the Detour Book CoverThe Detour [2010/2012] – ★★★★

This is a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, whose previous book The Twin [2006] won the International Dublin Literary Award. The Detour (also known as Ten White Geese), translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is about a Dutch woman who moves from her country and starts to live alone on a farm in rural Wales. Some of her nearby neighbours are badgers, cows and ten white geese whose number declines rapidly and mysteriously the longer she lives on her rented farm. Equipped with a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, the woman seems to be on the run from her past, trying to either delay or solve her immediate problems by seeking refuge in an unknown and isolated location. Her peace is soon disturbed by those with curiosity and inquisitiveness. With elegance and delicacy, Bakker draws on the nature in his book to shed light on the mystery that is this woman and her past, with his book becoming a quiet and poignant exploration of loneliness, pain and human connection. Continue reading “Review: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker”

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery

American novelist Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) is probably known for her Tom Ripley thrillers (among which is The Talented Mr Ripley [1955]), as well as for psychological suspense/thriller books that later also became films – Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt or The Two Faces of January. Below are the reviews of her two books, novels that showcase the depth of this author’s psychological character studies and her admirable, low-key stream of suspense. 

edith's diaryI. Edith’s Diary [1977] – ★★★★1/2

The difference between dream and reality is the true hell” [Highsmith, 1977: 291].

I first spotted this great book on Radhika’s Reading Retreat (check out her amazing blog and book recommendations!) and I knew I had to read it. In this story, Edith Howland moves with her husband Brett and her young son Cliffie from New York City to Pennsylvania. The family is not rich and hopes for the best in their new community. Edith starts to run a political newspaper in the new place, while keeping in touch with her old neighbours in New York and her wealthy aunt Melanie. Pressure on Edith intensifies as her son Cliffie becomes first troublesome then passive and aimless in life and Brett’s uncle George arrives to demand attention to himself. Soon, it is evident that the life that Edith imagined for herself and her family does not quite accord with reality and Edith finds herself increasingly prone to fantasising as she writes in her dairy. What will be the cost of this fantasy? – Simple paranoia and mental health concerns, or maybe the complicity in the death of another person? Edith’s Diary is a nuanced, psychological novel full of hidden, but real fears, and a quietly disturbing account of a woman whose repressed despair caused by social and personal expectations may just surface to lead to tragic results.  Continue reading “Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary and The Tremor of Forgery”

Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

my name is red My Name is Red [1998/2001] – ★★★★★

Why does man not see things? He is himself standing in the way: he conceals things.” “What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors“. (Friedrich Nietzsche) 

In My Name is Red by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, murder of one miniaturist – Elegant Effendi – was committed within the circle of miniaturists working for the Sultan in medieval Istanbul. At the same time, thirty-six year old Black returns to his hometown of Istanbul after his twelve years’ absence to seek once again the hand of his beloved Shekure, an opportunity that was denied to him twelve years previously. Unwittingly, Black becomes entangled in the intrigues of miniaturists working under Enishte Effendi, Black’s uncle and Shekure’s father. Masterfully, Pamuk takes us deep within the art circle of medieval craftsmen who labour to produce a mysterious new book, a circle repleted with professional jealousy, narcissism, hidden love and, above all, differences as so the proper way of painting and representing pictures under one strict religious canon. In this historical novel, Persian art-forms clash violently with rising Venetian art influences as Black starts to realise that, in order to find the murderer of Elegant Effendi, it is necessary to go deep into the worldviews and art opinions of each of the three suspected miniaturists – “Stork”, “Olive” and “Butterfly”, testing their loyalties and beliefs. It is impossible not to get swept away by this novel of great insight and intelligence. My Name is Red is like a rich, tightly-woven exotic tapestry whose secrets lie in elaborate details, red herrings and in the depth of the soul of its maker, celebrating the beauty, imagination and intelligence of ancient artworks and methods of painting.  Continue reading “Review: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk”

Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry

A15Zne-lCL Melmoth [2018] – ★★1/2 

First, I would like to say that I loved Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent [2016], its historical context, its beautiful prose, its main character, its plot – it read (almost, perhaps) like a modern classic, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Melmoth is Perry’s third book in which she focuses on the legend of Melmoth the Wanderer as it is seen through the eyes of modern-day characters living in Prague. In this story, Helen Franklin is a forty-something-year-old woman living in the Czech Republic in 2016 and working as a translator. She strikes up a friendship with one “posh” couple Karel and Thea, and it is through them that she reads a mysterious manuscript that details the confessions of certain people who allegedly had an encounter with Melmoth or Melmotka (a lonely woman who once denied the resurrection of Christ and is doomed to wander the Earth forever bearing witness to the humanity’s cruelty). The obsession with the manuscript soon makes Helen confront her own past. Even though there is an attempt made by the author to make this book deep and philosophical by touching upon such issues as sin, guilt, regret and atonement, these messages never get across in a compelling manner, and, overall, the book feels dull and very contrived. As in The Essex Serpent, Perry uses one intriguing and spooky legend here as a bait to entice her readers into picking up this “Gothic and unsettling” book only for those readers to then discover that they, instead, have been served with merely a collection of sad personal historical accounts that the author never even managed to bring convincingly together to make her final important point on history, witnessing and responsibility. Continue reading “Review: Melmoth by Sarah Perry”

Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

the honjin murders The Honjin Murders [1973/2019] – ★★★★1/2

I am continuing my contribution to the 13th Japanese Literature Reading Challenge with this book by Seishi Yokomizo. The Honjin Murders is considered to be the classic Japanese murder mystery, first serialised in 1946 and published in 1973. It is a debut work of the author and the winner of the first Mystery Writers of Japan Award. This story centres on the well-to-do Ichiyanagi family living in the village of Okamura who prepare for the wedding of their eldest son– Kenzo to a young woman of humbler origins – Katsuko. The whole village is shaken when both Kenzo and Katsuko are found slashed to death in their room in the early morning hours after their wedding. One strange clue follows another and soon it becomes clear that the murderer could not have possibly escaped the premises after the commission of the murder. The local police feels stuck with this case, and it is at this point that one young and unassuming amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi takes his turn to try to solve this highly unusual “locked-room” mystery. Offering a curious insight into traditional Japan, The Honjin Murders is a compact, tightly-woven crime mystery, which, while paying a direct tribute to other crime masterworks, provides its own similar brain-teaser. Continue reading “Review: The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo”

Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe

the silent cry The Silent Cry [1967/1988] – ★★★★★

Since I am participating in the 13th Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza, I am now reviewing this book by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe. In The Silent Cry, we are presented with the early 1960s and Mitsu, a disillusioned husband to an alcoholic wife and a father to a child who is now in an institution. Mitsu sees his life changing when his estranged brother Takashi arrives from America and together they travel to their native village in Shikoku, one of the main islands in Japan. There, they find that there is a shift in local power and one rich Korean magnate is proposing to buy what remains of Mitsu and Takashi’s land inheritance – their storehouse. Reluctantly, Mitsu finds himself drawn into a complicated political situation of the village, while also realising that Takashi starts to wield the unprecedented power over the village inhabitants. The Silent Cry is a slow-paced descent into one kind of a nightmare where the violent history of the village is about to be re-enacted and other grim discoveries made as the relationship between the two brothers takes an unexpected turn. Full of uneasiness and foreboding, The Silent Cy is a subtly powerful work that masterfully evokes the unsaid, the forbidden and the terrifying, getting us close to the real Truth and to the final Hope. It really becomes one of those books you do not have to enjoy, but to simply experience and live through. Continue reading “Review: The Silent Cry by Kenzaburō Ōe”

Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

the fishermen book review The Fishermen [2015] – ★★★★

The things my brother read shaped him; they became his visions. He believed in them. I have now come to know that what one believes often becomes permanent, and what becomes permanent can be indestructible.”

This debut book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, is set in a quiet neighbourhood of Akure in Nigeria in the 1990s and centres on four young brothers (Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin) whose lives change when their father gets a job transfer to another city and they hear a prophecy made about the death of one of them. Though the parents plan a big future for each and every one of their sons, they soon have to confront unimaginable horrors as the brothers take their fishing nets and hooks and head down to a local river. Steeped in local superstition and African folklore, The Fishermen explores the relationship between brothers from an interesting perspective, and, although it may be dragging its narrative for its first half, by the end, the book strangely redeems itself to become a story with a purpose and a conviction. Continue reading “Review: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma”

Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

bird in a cage book cover Bird in a Cage [1961/2016] – ★★★★

This short existential noir thriller tells of Albert, a thirty-year-old man, who arrives to his Paris apartment where he grew up. His mother died some years before, and, feeling nostalgic, Albert wonders around his Parisian quartier, trying to recall happy memories from his childhood. His day-dreaming is cut abruptly short when he meets a beautiful and enigmatic young woman with her daughter at the restaurant he never dared to go into before. Like some nightmare that he is unable to shake off, Albert soon finds himself trapped in a mystery so confusing and layered it is beyond his wildest imaginings – a dead body and a seemingly impossible crime emerge, and accounts of what happened are all as numerous as they are all improbable. Recalling the work of Georges Simenon, Bird in a Cage is a disturbingly delightful read, which is also suspenseful. Perhaps Dard is not as clever as he thinks he is with his big reveal, and much is left both unaccounted for and unbelievable in the story, but his concise and stylish approach to telling the story, that includes both existential and erotic themes, is rather fitting and appealing. Continue reading “Review: Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard”

Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

First, I would like to say to my followers that the reason I have not been so active on my blog recently is because I have taken a number of projects simultaneously over the past month, including taken more work assignments, started learning Japanese officially, started writing two fiction books (one of which will be a historical fiction/murder mystery set in France), and also started learning the piano. January has been a month of (intense) new beginnings for me (including yoga), and I finally have more time to move forward with my blog posts. Here is my first review of February, and I am continuing with a book by Julia Alvarez for my Latin America Reading Challenge.before we were free

Before We Were Free [2002] – ★★★★

Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free is a moving coming-of-age account of a young girl who grows up in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship in the late 1950s. Anita de la Torre may be only twelve but she already knows what it is like to have her family members suddenly disappear and a secret police raiding her home. Alvarez’s book strikes a delicate balance between the joys and sorrows of late childhood, including first love and early teenage insecurities, and the external tragedy and the experience of the world falling apart because of random acts of violence. The book is short and easy to read, even though it does lose some of its compelling force in the middle and no longer provides any fresh insights by the end. Continue reading “Review: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez”

Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet Book CoverAmulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★

“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64]. 

Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice. Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño”

Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac

The Black Sheep BalzacThe Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★

The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions [1837]) that tells of a remarkable battle for inheritance. At the centre of this story are two brothers, Joseph and Philippe, who could not be more different from each other, the modest and studious Joseph is the complete opposite of the bold and physically-imposing Philippe. They become the protagonists in the fight against their uncle’s supposed will to leave his fortune to mere strangers that coveted his attention for years. As in other novels, Balzac masterfully concocts a tale that is based on contrasts – the provincial life in Issoudun vs. the town life in Paris, the consequences of immense wealth vs. the results of poverty, the life of the upper classes vs. the destitution of the working class, while his moral spins around the fleeting nature of success, the extent of the individual ruthlessness and cunningness, and the consequences of a mother’s blind love for her child. More than any other Balzac novel, The Black Sheep is all about appearances often deceiving us and the fact that “a leopard never changes its spots”.  Continue reading “Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac”

Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World Book CoverThe Blazing World [2014] – ★★★★1/2 

This longlisted for a Man Booker Prize book traces the story of Harriet Burden, a small artist and once the wife of an eminent art dealer Felix Lord. Through the statements from Burden’s family, close friends and acquaintances, we get to know the story behind Burden’s decades-long experiment to hide behind three male identities in the production of her art. Burden chose to create art and pass it as works by someone else, thereby, exposing the anti-female bias in the art world, but also the subconscious perception that male artists are much more brilliant than their female counterparts. The Blazing World is bursting with creativity, intelligence and originality. It touches on many philosophical and psychological issues, while also debating the nature of art, the process of its creation and human perception. At the heart of the story is one misunderstood individual whose depth and intellectuality may just signal her doom. This unusual book invites us, readers, to be archivists, observers, art critics, judges and psychologists, but above all, it invites us to look at the situation as human beings, trying to understand the feelings and thoughts of another.  Continue reading “Review: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt”

Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi

A House Without Windows Book Cover A House Without Windows [2016] – ★★★

I am progressing with my YARC 2019 with this novel by an American author whose Afghan parents immigrated to the US from Afghanistan in the 1970s. In this tale, a terrible crime shook a small community in Afghanistan – Kamal, a husband and a father of four, has been found murdered with a hatchet plunged into his skull. At the scene of the crime is his wife Zeba who is covered in blood and numb with shock. But, was she really the one who committed the crime? Yusuf, a lawyer from the US, arrives to his native land Afghanistan and is immediately tasked with defending his reticent client Zeba, trying to seek justice in this seemingly open-and-shut case. This is a tale of two families – one traditional Afghan, rooted in its community, and another immigrant, with Nadia Hashimi making observations on the Afghan culture, Afghanistan’s criminal justice system and on the plight of women living in that country, paying a special tribute to their strength and resilience. Continue reading “Review: A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi”

Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

The Memory Police Book Cover The Memory Police [1994/2019] – ★★★★★

They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings. Continue reading “Review: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa”

Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe

The Face of Another Book Cover The Face of Another [1964] – ★★★★★

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). 

After enjoying The Woman in the Dunes [1962] over the summer, I have now read The Face of Another by the same author (translated from the Japanese by E. Dale Saunders). In this story, which is narrated through three notebooks (diaries), we are told of a scientist who gets facially disfigured while conducting an experiment in a laboratory, and struggles from then on to fit into the society with his disfigured face. He manages to make a mask that is indistinguishable from a real face, but soon finds out that his problems have only just began as his personality also starts to change. There is something from Frankenstein [1823] in this novel, something from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [1886], something from The Invisible Man [1897], something from Steppenwolf [1927], and something from Franz Kafka and Ernesto Sabato as well, resulting in this novel being a psychologically and philosophically delicious journey into the dark recesses of one increasingly damaged mind.  Continue reading “Review: The Face of Another by Kōbō Abe”

Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Book Cover 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World [2019] – ★★★1/2

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” is a shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019 book by the Turkish-British author Elif Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice [2013])). In this story, Tequila Leila is found dead in a trash bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, but her mind keeps working for another ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, during which time we are introduced to Leila’s childhood, her meetings with the- dearest-to-her people, and, finally, to the events leading up to her death. As Leila’s mind starts to race through her life events, we get to know Istanbul and its dark history, as well as the plight of the most marginalised people living within the city walls. Shafak’s “mind-slipping-away” concept is intriguing, and she does try to make her book as evocative as possible. However, the second half of the book is nowhere near as interesting as the first half, and the prose is sometimes sentimentally-inclined and even pretentious. There is this feeling when reading this book that the “mind-slipping-away” element is a gimmick introduced by Shafak to get our attention so that we can finally read what she wants us to understand: that Istanbul has had many faces through history, and that there are, and have always been, marginalised people living there, especially women, who suffered much and now deserve attention, recognition and, above all, dignity – even after their death.  Continue reading “Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak”

Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

the axeman's jazz The Axeman’s Jazz [2014] – ★★★

This is a debut historical fiction book that fictionalises real serial killer murders that shook New Orleans in 1918 and 1919 and were dubbed the Axeman’s murders. The book is a winner of the 2014 John Creasey (New Blood) Award, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read this book since it is set in New Orleans of all places, a city that has been fascinating me for a long time and so much I have previously mentioned/talked on my blog about its history, art and notable celebrations. This very atmospheric book follows three people investigating the gruesome murders of the Axeman: (i) a professional investigator Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; (ii) a nineteen year-old amateur sleuth and secretary at a local detective agency Ida Davis, and (iii) a recent convict and once detective Luca D’Andrea. Each one of them is under pressure to discover the identity of the murderer before anyone else, and the task is not easy since the murderer taunts the police and leaves strange clues behind, such as Tarot cards. Soon corruption in high places, the Mafia and false leads all complicate the case, as well as the most recent strange demand of the murderer: “play Jazz on one particular Tuesday and you will be safe”. Charmingly evoking the atmosphere of one-of-a-kind place in the world which was New Orleans in the early twentieth century, Ray Celestin concocts a worthy-of-a-read crime thriller, even if it is at times slow, overwritten, unnecessarily confusing and wobbly in its logic.  Continue reading “Review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin”

Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries Book Review Mysteries [1892] – ★★★★

Is there any way of knowing? There are so many strange things between heaven and earth, beautiful, inexplicable things, presentiments that can’t be explained, terrors that make your blood freeze” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 161].

I previously enjoyed Knut Hamsun’s book Hunger [1890], which I reviewed in May, and, following the recommendation from CakeorDeathSite, I am now reviewing Mysteries by this Nobel Prize winner. Translated from the Norwegian by Gerry Bothmer, Mysteries begins with the following lines: “In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behaviour and then vanished as suddenly as he had come” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 3]. Nagel is a total stranger to the little town, but he soon makes an unforgettable impression on its inhabitants, and people are taken aback by his unusual opinions and contradictory nature. But, who is he really? And, what is his agenda in this ordinary little town in Norway? We are taken on a journey into the mind of this eccentric character as he meets a typical-to-every-small-town parade of characters: a local beauty, a town’s misfit/clown and a proud deputy, among others. A journey is probably the word for our experience of this main character because Hamsun was really the author ahead of his time in terms of creating characters that disrupt societal status quo, making this story particularly intriguing, even if uneasy to consider. Nagel is a man of extraordinary visions and eccentric ideas, but what is the real truth here, and what should we really expect? Hamsun is clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to the spontaneity of the human nature or the restlessness of the human spirit. Continue reading “Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun”

Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field Book Cover The Far Field [2019] – ★★★

The Far Field is a debut book of the Indian author Madhuri Vijay. It tells of a privileged young woman (Shalini) who embarks on a journey from her home town Bangalore, India to the Kashmir region in search of a man (Bashir Ahmed) who was once her family’s friend. While we follow Shalini’s journey into one region filled with political instability and conflict, we are also taken back and introduced to Shalini as a child. When Shalini was a small girl, she and her mother had a frequent visitor in their house while Shalini’s father was at work. Handsome Bashir Ahmed lavished Shalini and her mother with his affection and kindness, and his departure from Bangalore is still something the family cannot accept. Madhuri Vijay describes the location and her characters vividly, trying to make her story poignant, and we may assume that we will be reading a beautiful story of one girl on a redemptive pursuit of a man (Bashir Ahmed) in the mountains of the Kashmir region. However, unfortunately, The Far Field really ends up to be an unrealistic story of much ado about nothing. There is no real mystery to uncover here nor is there any special insight to be gained from the characters. Perhaps, only Shalini’s random actions surprise and even shock, and not in a positive way at all.  Continue reading “Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay”

Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

The Blackwater Lightship Book Review The Blackwater Lightship [1999] – ★★★1/2

In 1999, Paul Binding from The Independent on Sunday wrote that “we shall be reading and living with The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years”. Twenty years have now passed, and, this year, The Blackwater Lightship by Irish author Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn [2009]) is twenty years old. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to review this book that was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. In this story, three generations of women (daughter Helen, mother Lily and grandmother Dora) come together to try to cement their uneasy relationships with each other after Helen’s brother Declan is taken gravely ill as a result of his AIDS diagnosis. Tóibín makes his writing effortlessly beautiful, and there is a special sense of sadness and a desire for redemption permeating this story, with the characters trying hard to accept and forgive each other while they remain united in their shared tragedy. However, The Blackwater Lightship is still rather bland and can be described as “playing it safe”, sometimes veering off from the main drama into other topics (changing societal views on homosexuality and difficulty of finding romance) and according its secondary characters (Declan’s friends) an undeserved place in the story.  Continue reading “Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín”

Review: Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb

Sulphuric Acid1.docx Sulphuric Acid [2005/2007] – ★★★★

This book is by a Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, who was born in Japan, but now resides in Paris. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, Sulphuric Acid is a short novella which quite shockingly and darkly satirises our obsession with TV, in particular with reality television, and our idolisation of celebrities. Probably taking some inspiration from Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), Sulphuric Acid is a dystopia-set story in which millions of people tune in every night for a TV programme called Concentration, which recreates a Nazi-style concentration camp with real participants. People in this programme take either the roles of guards or prisoners, with cameras catching their every move. Nothomb packs a lot of ideas into her novella of just over 120 pages, and she is very interested to explore human responses to some unthinkable situations, as we follow the main characters – a beautiful young woman Pannonique, one of the prisoners, and sadistic Zdena, one of the guards. Continue reading “Review: Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb”

Review: Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

Honore de Balzac Lost Illusions Lost Illusions [1837 – 1843/1971] ★★★★★

“...he was living in one of those golden dreams in which young people, cantering along on their ifs, leap over all barriers” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 113].

It’s hard…to keep one’s illusions about anything in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 387].

This week I am celebrating my first blogaversary – my blog is one year old (thank you to all my followers for following!), and this will also be my 70th full book review (see the others here). Therefore, I thought I would review a classic for a change as a way to “celebrate” and also to draw attention to the best literature has to offer. Translated from the French by Herbert J. Hunt, Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac is part of his La Comedie Humaine series, and centres around Lucien Chardon, a handsome and optimistic, but very naïve, young man who desires to be successful in high society through his talent – he is a writer. He leaves his friend David Sechard, a typographist, in Angouleme and embarks on a dizzying adventure full of dramatic ups and downs in Paris, where he has to make difficult for him decisions about which path to success to follow. This is not one’s ordinary tale of a man’s fall from grace or the corruption of innocence. Balzac masterfully portrayed a story with a number of vivid characters, and his observations on the society, its hierarchy and its unspoken rules are second to none – making this work a true classic, both entertaining and insightfully profound. Through his tale, we get to understand the nuts and bolts of a printing business and journalism in the countryside and in Paris in the 1820s, as well as the consequences of unrelenting ambition and talent when they are not underpinned by solid connections and easily swayed by vanity and egocentrism.  Continue reading “Review: Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac”

Review: Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

Half a Lifelong Romance1.docx Half a Lifelong Romance [1950/1966/2014] ★★★★★

Maybe a love like that came to a person only once in a lifetime? Once was enough, maybe” [Chang/Kingsbury, 1950/2014: 354].

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness” (Bertrand Russell).

Half a Lifelong Romance, translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury, is a modern classic where a timeless story, filled with passion, longing and sorrow, meets fluid and engaging writing. In this story, set in the 1930s, Manzhen, a young girl, forms friendship with her co-worker Shuhui and his friend Shijun; soon after, between Manzhen and Shijun sparks a feeling so innocent and tender that both are left speechless, floating near the island of complete happiness. However, Manzhen’s disastrous family circumstances and Shijun’s own familial duties do not let the lovers get any closer to each other, and, in time, their circumstances only worsen as they try to fight their inner sense of duty, responsibility, family tradition and lack of money to get nearer to each other. Simple misunderstandings, false pride, as well as unexpected betrayals also keep these people’s true happiness at bay. Half a Lifelong Romance is a moving, quietly devastating and exquisite novel that may surprise you with its power (including its dark twist) in the second half. Chang wrote compellingly, engagingly and beautifully, and her story of Chinese family traditions and one love torn apart by circumstances is one unputdownable read.  Continue reading “Review: Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang”

Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys Book Cover The Nickel Boys [2019] – ★★★★★

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” (Albert Camus).

Colson Whitehead’s latest book is the story of Elwood Curtis, a clever and hard-working boy, who is sent to the Nickel Academy for boys after one “misunderstood” event. Drawing inspiration from a real, shocking story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (subsequently known for its mistreatment and abuse of boys), Whitehead paints a gruesome picture of one school that employs shocking corrective procedures that can break any human spirit and hope for the future. Through Elwood, we enter a dictatorial organisation whose rules must be obeyed at all costs because the price for not doing so is hard to put into words. Idealistic Elwood, who worships the sermons of Dr Luther King, soon has to confront one way of life filled with arbitrary violence, indifference, heartlessness and hypocrisy. In this environment, Elwood must learn fast how the place is run in order to survive, and the book is also a story of coming to terms with one’s horrific past. Neither Elwood nor his story may seem original, but the account is very heart-felt, not least because this is a story about the fight for freedom and against institutional injustice and racism. There have been many Elwoods throughout history, people who were either crippled for being who they are; whose spirits were broken before they could lead a life of peace; or those who simply did not make it alive, having gone through a system that should not have existed in the first place. Preserving the memory of these people is the point of Whitehead’s latest book. Continue reading “Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead”

Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek Book Cover Miracle Creek [2019] – ★★★★

There are no facts, only interpretations” (Friedrich Nietzsche). 

I do not read many legal thrillers or courtroom dramas anymore (through I do read crime and detective stories). My “John Grisham” phase ended many years ago, and since I have a background in law, I tend to avoid fiction which makes me ceaselessly question/criticise legal inconsistencies/mistakes in a book. I had to make an exception with Miracle Creek, because there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to this courtroom thriller and debut book, and I just could not pass by an opportunity to read what has been called “a jaw-dropping, page-turner” of a book. Miracle Creek, is, indeed, not one’s ordinary legal thriller. Angie Kim centres her story around a pressured oxygen chamber or the Miracle Submarine that is used as an experimental treatment device in Miracle Creek, Virginia. The Miracle Submarine belongs to Pak Yoo, an immigrant from South Korea, who tries to do his best in the US so that his wife and daughter can find happiness in this foreign to them country. When a fatal accident happens at Pak’s treatment facility, one leading suspect emerges, but is the case as clear-cut as it appears at first? Soon, secrets, lies, and surprising relations between Pak Yoo’s patients emerge, complicating this seemingly open-and-shut case, as Angie Kim also makes insightful points on cultural divisions, on the issue of using certain experimental, controversial treatments to treat disabled children and on the trials of parenthood. Continue reading “Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim”

Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings Book CoverThe Interestings [2013] – ★★★★1/2

Meg Wolitzer is an American novelist known for such books as The Wife [2003] and The Ten-Year Nap [2008]. Her novel The Interestings is also a bestseller which is as impressive. In this book, the central stage first take six teenagers: (i) awkward, but funny Jules, our main heroine; (ii) lovable and charming Ash; (iii) Ash’s handsome, but slightly troubled brother Goodman; (iv) not particularly attractive, but friendly and ingenious Ethan; (v) dreamy and artistic Jonah; (vi) and beautiful and emotional Cathy. How their first summer at an artsy camp Spirit-in-the-Woods and future inter-relationships develop, as they become adults in the fast-changing world, is the focus of this very reflective, character-driven book. The Interestings is almost nostalgic, slightly dreamy, in quality book filled with emotions, longings and reflections, making the reader pose and reflect as they step into the lives of six people who all first long to be better than they are – or, interesting – but whose different life choices, talent, past and backgrounds ultimately determine their place in the world. It becomes harder for them to preserve their feelings of love and friendship for each other, when societal pressures, financial success, lifestyle changes and losses (as well as ensued envy, hurt and disillusionment) start to dictate their lives, attitudes and perceptions, dividing the once close group of friends. Continue reading “Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer”

Review: A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

A Maze of Death Book CoverA Maze of Death [1970] – ★★★★

People see what they want to see and what people want to see never has anything to do with the truth” [Roberto Bolaño, 2666]. 

“...we’re rats in a maze with death; rodents confined with the ultimate adversary, to die one by one until none are left” [Philip K. Dick, 1970: 97].

In this curious short novel, Philip K. Dick blends Agatha Christie’s infamous And Then There Were None premise with his own colourful world and perception ideas to produce an engaging story of fourteen people who find themselves on a remote and strange planet Delmark-O…and in danger – a mysterious force is also on the planet and is seemingly killing them one by one. A Maze of Death may be termed as a more straightforward story from Philip K. Dick, especially compared to some of his others, but there is still a mind-blowing twist to be found at the end. In this book, in a typical Philip K. Dick style, we get immersed into the world where reality is bent, where nothing is as it seems and where the chances of survival depend wholly on one’s clear and true perception of oneself and the world around.  Continue reading “Review: A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick”

Review: The Crime of Father Amaro by Eça de Queirós

The Crime of Father Amaro Book Cover The Crime of Father Amaro [1875/1962] – ★★★★★

Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós has been compared to Russian Leo Tolstoy and French Honoré Balzac, and for a good reason – his debut (without a collaboration) book The Crime of Father Amaro (translated by Nan Flanagan in 1962) is a multi-faceted novel of great ambition and skill. In it, he tells of events taking place in a small cathedral town of Leiria, north of Lisbon. Father Amaro, a handsome young priest arrives to Leiria to take the position of a parish priest and soon falls under the spell of the most beautiful girl in town – good-natured Amelia, who lives with her strict and apparently religious mother Joanneira in the heart of the city. Amaro is an honourable guest and a lodger in the comfortable house of Amelia and Joanneira, and he soon finds that his duties of a priest clash with his physical desires, and, in particular, with his burning romantic passion for Amelia. Amaro is also caught up in the town’s complex politics, in a clash between the clergy of the town and the governmental powers. The forces within Amaro, as well as from outside of his influence, conspire to lead the young parish priest to making some unprecedented choices. This beautifully-written novel may start as one’s usual tale of sympathetic and doomed love, but – and here the readers will be in for a surprise – it will finish as a more complex story that subverts all expectations. If Italy has Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed [1827], Portugal can pride itself on having José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro; Eça de Queirós is a brave author who was not afraid to twist common literary tropes and introduce his own, unique versions of main characters, producing an unputdownable tale of one passionate love’s consequences, while also offering an insightful satire on the ways of a provincial town.

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Review: The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

Kobo Abe The Woman in the Dunes The Woman in the Dunes [1962] – ★★★★★

In this deceptively simple tale, Kobo Abe paints a quietly disturbing picture of one man who finds himself in an unusual situation when he ventures to look for insects in sand dunes. The man, Niki Jumpei, misses his last bus home upon finishing his one day trip to the dunes, and some local villagers do him a favour and put him up for one night at one woman’s eccentric dwelling at the bottom of a sand pit (the only exit is by a long rope to reach the surface). Jumpei is an entomologist and a school-teacher, a man of science and reason, but nothing could prepare for him for what he is about to experience in his new strange dwelling (which has more complex arrangements that he has ever imagined). But, he will only be there for one night; right? or will he be? The man soon discovers that his innocent trip to the outskirts of one village is about to take a very absurd and horrific turn. The plot may be straightforward, but the merit of this novel still lies in the subtleties and (horrific) realisations – in the consequences which are revealed slowly to the reader (as well as to the character), enhancing the suspense and the final impact. The reader will suspend disbelief when the main character meets a woman and a community he never imagined existed, which prompts him to meditate on the meaning of life, relationships and the human nature. The Woman in the Dunes is Kobo Abe’s existentialist masterpiece.

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Review: There There by Tommy Orange

There There Book Cover There There [2018] – ★★★★

There There is a debut book by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author who has a goal to draw attention to the lives of Native Americans living in an urban setting in the present day US. We follow twelve different characters who all live in Oakland, California and struggle in some form in their lives. From marginalised and criminally-minded Tony Loneman to internet-obsessed and lonely Edwin Black; and from history-inspired Dene Oxendene to poverty-stricken and troubled sisters – Opal Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather, Tommy Orange presents a heart-wrenching overview of the struggles of the people who want to re-connect with their families and their Native American heritage. The characters’ lives are intertwined and there is a feeling like they are all moving towards an explosive finale in the story. The result is a powerful tribute to Native Americans living in big US cities today, trying to make their heritage feel relevant and important, even if Orange’s story as a narrative falls short of its mark because of its overly-ambitious multiple perspectives’ focus, as well as its dissatisfying ending.  Continue reading “Review: There There by Tommy Orange”

Review: Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

Daytripper Book Cover Daytripper [2010/11] – ★★★★★

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá are twin brothers from Brazil who are the creators of Daytripper, an ambitious comic book about Bras de Oliva Domingos, an obituaries’ writer living in Sao Paulo. We follow and experience his life in a non-chronological order and witness everything from Bras’s “unusual” birth, his first kiss, his major break-up, his career change, to the birth of his child and the death of his parent. Bras learns important life-lessons along the way, and it is his relationships with other people that come to define him and his most memorable life moments. Daytripper may be dealing with very uncomfortable issues of life and death, but this beautiful comic book is also eye-opening, inspirational and moving. Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon invite you to step into their colourful, slightly transcendental world of one’s memorable life moments, into the world of “what ifs”, ups and downs, hopes and despairs. Their message is clear: we have one shot at this thing called life and should prioritise the most important things in it, including the people we cherish and the relationships we hold dear. Daytripper is simply an exhilarating journey to uncover the mysteries of life and death.  Continue reading “Review: Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá”

Review: Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Solaris Book Cover Solaris [1961/70] – ★★★★★

Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilisations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed” [Stanisław Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 164].

Solaris is considered to be the most influential and significant work of a Polish writer Stanisław Lem. Also made into a movie [1972] by Andrei Tarkovsky, the book tells of Kelvin, a psychologist, who arrives to a station orbiting the mysterious planet called Solaris. On board of the station are supposed to be three other researchers, and Kelvin joins them to know about their progress in trying to understand the planet, and, in particular, the ocean on Solaris that may or may not have consciousness of its own. Then, Kelvin starts to experience something coming from the mysterious planet no one has warned him about. The so-called “visitors” frequent the station and Kelvin begins to think he is losing his grip on reality when his dead wife makes an appearance, opening his emotional wounds. But, what is this strange force that plays tricks on the inhabitants of the station? What is the meaning of this psychic phenomenon coming from Solaris? Can researchers really understand its workings? It is easy to see why Solaris stood the test of time. The book is inventive, thought-provoking and fascinating. Its main attraction is the eerie, seemingly impenetrable mystery that surrounds the strange planet Solaris, but the merit of Lem’s story is also that it tells us as much about humanity, its characteristics and its limitations as about the attempts to understand the unfathomable – one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.  Continue reading “Review: Solaris by Stanisław Lem”

Mini-Review: Trap for Cinderella by Sébastien Japrisot

Trap for Cinderella Book Cover Trap for Cinderella [1963/65] – ★★★★

Sébastien Japrisot (1931-2003) was an award-winning French author probably best known in the English-speaking world for his book A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) [1991], which was adapted into a well-known film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella, translated by Helen Weaver, is an inventive psychological thriller which plays with one very curious scenario: two girls are found in a burnt down beach house – one dead and one alive. The survivor is burnt beyond recognition and remembers nothing about herself or her previous life. Who is she? And what was her relationship with the dead girl? The investigation into the fire uncovers evil intentions, and our main character begins to question everything she is told about herself. Japrisot’s tale of obsession, strange friendship and mistaken identity is a wild literary ride: intense and mentally-stimulating, even if it does rely on an unbelievable and slightly preposterous turn of events. 

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Review: Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Bitter Orange Book Cover Bitter Orange [2018] – ★★★1/2 

Bitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel in which she mixes a crime mystery, antique house drama (a hint on a love triangle) and melancholic nostalgia for the past. Her main character Frances feels like she was given a new lease of life when, at the age of thirty-nine, her previously bedridden mother is dead and she is assigned a task to catalogue garden architecture in a semi-abandoned mansion – Lyntons. At the house, she befriends a couple who rents the first floor of the building, and their present relationships and past come head to head to result in something explosive. Bitter Orange is an oddly evocative book, but also an oddly imperfect one. Sometimes frustratingly uneventful and slow, the book’s main fault is still its underwhelming, under-thought and already unoriginal characters, premise and ending. 

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Review: Golden Child by Claire Adam

Golden Child Claire Adam Golden Child [2019] – ★★★★

Claire Adam’s debut novel, which is set in hot and exotic Trinidad and Tobago, author’s native land, is a curious mix of a family drama, focusing on twins and parenthood, and a “mysterious disappearance” thriller. Clyde and Joy are typical parents living in southern Trinidad, trying to make their ends meet. Their twin sons – Peter and Paul – may look identical, but, in the eyes of at least one of their parents – they are very different. Peter is a diligent student and is considered to be a new academic star, whereas “that other one” or Paul is deemed “slow”, having a learning disability. When Paul disappears one day, the family has to finally confront their long-standing attitude towards him, as well as his unusual place in the family. Adam’s engrossing debut touches on many themes, including crime and the stresses of parenthood, but, at the core of them all, is a beating heart, an emotion, a special tribute to every child who once thought he or she was not good enough.  Continue reading “Review: Golden Child by Claire Adam”

Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho Book Review Idaho [2017] – ★★1/2

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a strange book. Idaho alludes to some accident which happened sometime in the past in the woods of Idaho. That accident involved a family of four: Wade, Jenny and their two daughters, May and June. Jumping timelines, Ruskovich paints an unsettling picture of one family broken apart. Years after the incident, Wade suffers from memory loss, and it is up to his new wife Ann “to retrace the memory steps”. If this sounds vague and confusing, it is because it is supposed to. Idaho is an almost experimental novel, in which the author uses the evocative language to shed light on the nature of memory, loss, grief and guilt. Though her attempt is admirable, the book is also very problematic: if the beginning is promising, the book soon morphs into a frustrating read, and the ending borders on pointlessness.  Continue reading “Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich”

Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

FFrench Exit Book Coverrench Exit [2018] – ★★★

This tragicomedy of manners comes from the author of a Man Booker Prize nominee The Sisters Brothers [2011]. In French Exit, Patrick DeWitt centres on a mother, Frances, a fussy and bossy woman of sixty-five, and her good-for-nothing thirty-two year-old son, Malcolm, who see their fortune fade away after an ill-publicised death of the family provider Franklin Price, once an eminent lawyer in New York City. Once rich and admired, the family of two now face financial ruin and decide to go to Paris, perhaps, for a change of scenery. Frances’s only friend Joan provides an apartment to rent in Paris for them, and the duo of unlikely central characters embark on their French exploit enthusiastically, meeting eccentric characters along the way. This slightly surreal tragicomedy is an amusing enough read, but it is also often somewhat dull, with emotional punch coming too late in this curious book.  Continue reading “Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt”

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

Serena Book Cover Serena [2008] – ★★★★1/2

Will at Coot’s Reviews suggested that I read Serena by Ron Rash for my Appalachia Reading Challenge, and both H.P from Hillbilly Highways and Emma at Book Around the Corner also recommended that I read Rash’s work, so thank you! Serena pleasantly surprised me. This novel tells the story of a newly-wed couple the Pembertons who arrive to a logging community high up in North Carolina Mountains to take over a timber business there. Every worker at the camp is awed by Mrs Serena Pemberton, a woman so strong-willed and determined she can match any man’s will power or shrewdness. Masterfully-executed and beautifully-written, Serena evokes vividly both the beauty of North Carolina’s landscape and horrors involved in the business of cutting trees to make profit. Ron Rash even packs in the novel “slow-burn” suspense since Mr Pemberton’s past actions give rise to unforeseen consequences, and, as the couple arrive to North Carolina, with them also descends upon the village something disturbing and sinister.

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Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

The Night of the Hunter Book CoverThe Night of the Hunter [1953] – ★★★★★

The Night of the Hunter is best known as a film of 1955 by Charles Laughton, but it was first a great book by Davis Grubb, who based his story on a true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a deranged psychopath who preyed on and killed lonely widows in the late 1920s. In the book by Davis Grubb, Willa Harper is a recently widowed mother of two whose husband, Ben Harper, has recently been convicted and executed for killing two men in armed robbery. After the execution, Willa and her two children, John and Pearl, are the centre of sympathy in their community until their “salvation” arrives in the form of Harry Powell or “Preacher”. Preacher knows that Ben Harper disclosed to his children before his execution the location of ten thousand dollars he gained through robbery, and Preacher will use any means – kindness or more disturbing pressure to discover the location of the money. It is safe to say now that The Night of the Hunter was unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Davis Grubb’s book a “lost masterpiece”, and there is truth in that. The Night of the Hunter is a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank in West Virginia. The novel is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.  Continue reading “Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb”

Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes Book Cover Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café [1987] – ★★★★

I may be sitting here at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, but in my mind I’m over at the Whistle Stop Café having a plate of fried green tomatoes“, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, June 1986 (preface quote to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café).

This book is about two women – Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home, – meeting in 1985, and Ms Threadgoode starts to tell Evelyn about her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression era. Evelyn goes back in her mind to that time when Ms Threadgoode’s wild, free-spirited sister-in-law Idgie and her beautiful, soft-spoken friend Ruth ran a café in Whistle Stop, discovering the hardship they went through and the happiness they found. Mrs Threadgoode also hints at a murder mystery which got everyone talking in the 1930s in Whistle Stop. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a “feel-good” book at the centre of which is a powerful story of two women whose friendship and love enabled them to overcome obstacles in their way. Originally presented, paying special attention to the connecting power of food and cooking, the book also touches on such themes as racism, aging, marital violence, and finding hope in difficult times.

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Review: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Hunger Cover Hunger [1890/1996] – ★★★★★

Knut Hamsun is a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature whose existentialist literary work Hunger predates Franz Kafka’s The Trial [1925] and Albert Camus’ The Stranger [1942]. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad, Hunger explores the daily life of one lonely and desperate man on the brink of starvation in a large city. Our unnamed narrator is a freelance writer who has one “ambition” in his life: not to die from hunger. He is hard-working and not demanding, with food and shelter being his main wishes. Hamsun explores mental and physical traumas of the character in a masterful work that inspired some of the greatest philosophical fiction authors of the twentieth century, emphasising in his work that the fight to survive in a big city may take a shape of complete absurdity.

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Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau Cover The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau [2014] – ★★★★★

Graeme Macrae Burnet is a Scottish author best known for his Man Booker Prize nominated novel His Bloody Project [2015]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is his debut novel written in a style of a French mystery novel and film noir. Dark and intriguing, the novel tells the story of thirty-six-year old Manfred Baumann, a reclusive, lonely and socially awkward bank worker who spends his evenings in the local Restaurant de la Cloche, Saint-Louis, France. When one attractive waitress of the restaurant – Adèle Bedeau disappears after a night-out, Detective Georges Gorski’s suspicions soon fall on Manfred Baumann and one unsolved past criminal case regains its spotlight. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is written in that nostalgic style of old French mystery novels, echoing the works of Georges Simenon (Burnet’s favourite book is Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel [1957]) or existential literature, such as Ernesto Sabato’s El Tunel [1948]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is an impressive, understated literary mystery with many subtle elements, convincing psychological character study, and one atmospheric setting. Continue reading “Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet”

Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley

The Editor Book Cover The Editor [2019] – ★★1/2

In this story by Steven Rowley, author of the debut novel Lily and the Octopus [2016], a struggling writer James Smale lands a book deal, and his editor ends up being no other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, yes, the former First Lady of the United States. For James, it is like a dream-come-true situation, and, as he deepens his friendship with his famous editor, he realised he has to confront the painful issues surrounding the reason why he began writing his novel The Quarantine in the first place. Ms Kennedy Onassis wants James to open up about his mother and surprising family secrets emerge. The Editor, which is set in 1990s New York City, is quirky and humorous, but it is also a self-indulgent and pretentious book which suffers from a dull, predictable and melodramatic plot. Continue reading “Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley”

Review: When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather Book Review When Rain Clouds Gather [1969] – ★★★★★

You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart” [Bessie Head, 1969: 191]. 

This is a tale of Makhaya, a refugee from South Africa, who desires to build his life anew in a small village of Golema Mmidi, Botswana. There, he meets eccentric Englishman Gilbert Balfour, who would like to revolutionise farming methods to help people of the village. Both men are running away from the past and are in search of wives. However, before both start to live free lives, trying to help others, they have to face and fight political corruption, unfavourable climatic conditions and village prejudice. When Rain Clouds Gather tells an important story of finding hope in the most hostile and dangerous conditions, and can really be considered a modern classic.
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Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Los Pasos Perdidos CoverThe Lost Steps [1953/1989] – ★★★★1/2 

“…we let ourselves succumb to the world of wonder, eager for still greater portents. There arose beside the hearth, conjured up by Montsalvatje, the medicine men who healed the wounds with the magic incantation of Bogotá, the Amazon Queen, Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who slept at night in the bottoms of the lakes, and those whose sole nourishment was the scent of flowers” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1954/89: 144].

Los Pasos Perdidos or The Lost Steps was translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis and represents what is believed to be one of the most important Latin American novels to come out in the twentieth century. In this story, our unnamed narrator (believed to be in New York) is sent on a mission to a jungle (believed to be in Venezuela) to discover and collect some ancient musical instruments for a museum. By accepting this request, the narrator has no idea that he is about to embark on one extraordinary journey of self-realisation and self-discovery, which will force him to rethink his previous inculcated beliefs. The Lost Steps is a complex literary work which sometimes slides into being rather metaphysical in nature, but without losing its conviction or power. Carpentier weaves his story in a beautiful, even though enigmatic, language, and the result is a book which puzzles, impresses and astonishes. Continue reading “Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier”

Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Shipwrecks Book Cover Shipwrecks [1982/1996] – ★★★★★

Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells a story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has a number of rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon OFune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or a curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative in nature as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one eerie desire. However, despite based almost entirely on observations, the novel is no less fascinating and is subtly powerful. It is a great read for anyone who likes unusual stories which uncover different ways of looking at life.  Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura”

Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life Book Cover A Little Life [2015] – ★★★★1/2 

Once we are lost unto ourselves, everything else is lost to us” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Initially, this Man Booker Prize Nominee is about four friends who try to succeed in New York City after their graduation. Willem is a kind soul and an aspiring actor, JB is a gregarious party-goer and carefree artist, Malcolm is a grounded man, but increasingly disillusioned architect, and, finally, Jude is a brilliant lawyer, but also a man who harbours a secret past which torments him every day and every night. Will friendship and love triumph over the traumas and cruelties of life? This book does depict trauma, distress and violence stemming from the abuse of a child in the past, but, like Yanagihara’s debut, A Little Life is also a beautifully-written and intelligently-constructed novel with significant themes that must have their place in literature. Like the author’s debut, it is sometimes a painfully repetitive read, and Yanagihara drives her main message too torturously in it. However, it is incorrect to view the book as being solely about bad things happening. No person should be defined (or should feel to be defined) by the past trauma that was unfairly inflicted upon them, and the book sends an important message out, becoming a touching and emotional tribute to the power, loyalty and sacrifices of friendship and love, even if that tribute is too thickly wrapped in the pain of our main atypical and mysterious character – Jude St. Francis. 

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Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata Philip K Dick CoverThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch [1964]★★★★1/2 

This is my fourth Philip K. Dick novel (previously, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968], A Scanner Darkly [1977] and Ubik [1969]). This story is set in future and follows Barney Mayerson, an employee of P.P (Perky Pat) Layouts, a firm which specialises in providing layouts which can be used for drug experience when customers (those in space colonies) take illegal hallucinatory drug Can-D, which can recreate a perfect life when one takes it. Mayerson finds out that Palmer Eldritch, a man who went to another star system some years previous, has returned to the Solar System and is bringing with him an even more potent drug than Can-D, and it is called Chew-Z. However, soon suspicions mount that the experience with Chew-Z may not be what everybody thinks it is. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is messier and more chaotic that some of the author’s later, better known novels, but it is still an entertaining read with all the expected typically Philip K. Dick philosophical considerations and thought-provoking situations. Even if the world he presents this time is tackier and crazier than usual, the author still manages to suspend our disbelief as we plunge deep into this addictive and well-constructed futuristic world where our usual understanding of reality is turned upside down. 

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Review: The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin Book Cover The Twin [2006/2008] – ★★★★

The Twin, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is that type of a book which should not work, but somehow it does. It should not work because it is too introspective and has the drama and suspense which are way too subtle. In this book, Helmer van Wonderen is a fifty-seven year old man who is living on an isolated farm in the Netherlands, carrying for his aging father. His identical twin brother Henk, a farmer, died many years before, forcing Helmer to return home to work as a farm hand, helping his father. When his brother’s ex fiancée Riet arrives to the area, bringing her unruly son with her (who is also named Henk), Helmer is forced to confront his painful past, as well as his choices in life. The Twin may be a very “slow” novel, but where it lacks in pace, it makes up for in atmosphere and landscape descriptions. It also has barely perceivable emotional resonance that can be felt in the main character’s words and actions. 

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Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet-Bean-Paste-cover Sweet Bean Paste [2013/2017] – ★★★★★

The aroma seemed to leap up at him, as if it were alive, racing through his nose to the back of his head. Unlike the ready-made paste, this was the smell of fresh, living beans. It had depth. It had life. A mellow, sweet taste unfurled inside Sentaro’s mouth” [Sukegawa/Watts, 2013: 33]. 

This book, translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts (see also the film trailer here), tells a story of Sentaro, a middle-aged man who spends his time unenthusiastically selling dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with sweet bean paste, to customers at the Doraharu shop, while consuming alcoholic drinks in his spare time. When an elderly woman Tokue approaches his shop and asks to work there, Sentaro first thinks it is a joke. However, Sentaro also tastes the bean paste cooked by Tokue and he is amazed by the flavours she can produce. What follows is a touching human story filled with the passion for food and the importance of appreciating small pleasures in life. Sweet Bean Paste is also so much more than a book about Japanese culinary delights and culture. It is a quietly beautiful book with the message of coming to terms with history, accepting people and recognising their talents no matter how small they may appear. Each person can contribute something to this world if others are willing to listen, learn and accept. 

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Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

The Decagon House Murders Cover The Decagon House Murders [1987/2015]★★1/2

This book, translated from the Japanese by Ho-Ling Wong, “was seen as a milestone in detective fiction and the start of the shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement” [1987/2015: 228]. That movement was a revival of the traditional “logical reasoning” detective fiction in Japan that was prevalent in the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s. The new movement was characterised by robot-like personages; game-like setting; and lacking literary context or significance, being purely about solving a whodunit mystery using logical reasoning. Heavily influenced by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939], The Decagon House Murders is about seven Japanese students who decide to stay on an isolated island not far from the main land in a mysterious Decagon House. Some months previously there occurred on the island the mysterious deaths of the owner of the property, his wife and their two servants. The students on the island are then start to be killed off in a fashion reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s famous novel. The book premise is exciting, but the book also reads like a videogame script with little character insight, context or emotion (which is intentional, but may not be for everyone), and the final solution is, arguably, too unbelievable and underwhelming. 

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Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Drive Your Plow Book Cover Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead [2009/18] – ★★★★1/2 

This book by Olga Tokarczuk (the winner of the International Booker Prize Award for Flights) was translated from the Polish in 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. In this story, an eccentric elderly woman Janina Duszejko recounts a series of murders happening in her small village near Kłodzko, Poland. Her neighbour’s death follows that of other hunting men in the vicinity, and suspicions begin to mount. Janina has her own unusual theories about the murders, and these involve animals. But, is she really a new Polish Miss Marple? Tokarczuk did not just write a detective story – her book combines existential philosophy, animal rights and village politics (small people vs. big power) theses, unchangeable horoscope arguments and literary (William Blake) references to produce one of a kind story whose main narrator steals every other page with her insightful and often bizarre observations. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a strange literary concoction, but also an atmospheric and intelligent one. 

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Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees CoverThe People in the Trees [2013] – ★★★★1/2  

The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable and even indignant about the content. However, these do not make the book any less masterful. Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir/diary detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastic elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather delightful and pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.

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Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery Book Cover The Beautiful Mystery [2012] – ★★★★ 

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian author and this is her eight Inspector Gamache detective mystery. The book is about a murder that happened in a mysterious 400 year old monastery somewhere in the northern Quebec. Twenty-three devoted-to-music monks are grieving for their murdered music director who was killed in the most merciless way. Inspector Gamache and his second-in-command Beauvoir are called to investigate and instantly become enchanted by the divine ancient chants of the eccentric and reclusive monks. But, who killed Frère Mathieu and for what purpose? Clues have been left behind, and, as the investigation slowly moves forward, Gamache realises that he has to first solve one ancient mystery of religious music before he gets to the identity of the murderer. It is so hard nowadays to find a quality detective novel and this book ticks almost all the boxes for me. In The Beautiful Mystery, there is one single eerie location setting, a focus on internal thinking/motivations of the characters, including their dynamics, and an unusual element, since the emphasis is also on mysterious ancient music. The Beautiful Mystery may suffer from having two narratives (a murder investigation and a previous case discussion), which run uncomfortably side by side, and the result is not altogether unpredictable. However, the book is still suspenseful (maybe too suspenseful), and the location and music described are just too beautiful and intriguing not to be impressed. In that way, an attempt to fuse beauty and darkness is the forte of this book.  Continue reading “Review: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny”

Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke Cover Moth Smoke [2000] – ★★★★1/2    

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007] is one of my favourite novels. Therefore, I had high expectations prior to reading Hamid’s debut book Moth Smoke [2000]. These expectations were met. In Moth Smoke, Darashikoh Shezad or Daru is a hash-smoking banker living in Lahore, Pakistan who rekindles his friendship with his childhood friend Ozi, who is now an influential and rich man living under the protection of his equally influential, but corrupt father. Daru also realises that he is attracted to Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, and, among his friends is also a shady character Murad Badshah, who sometimes acts as his drugs supplier. After Daru is fired from his job, his societal divide from influential and rich Ozi grows even further, and he finds himself on the dark path towards immorality and crime. Moth Smoke is a fascinating, eye-opening journey into Lahore’s criminal underbelly, which makes observations on the societal class divisions and east vs. west mentality conflicts. But, it is also so much more than that: it has an experimental structure and style (with at least four unreliable narrators); employs symbolism and fable-like story-telling; and becomes a book about the limits of morality, friendship and love, while also exploring the nature of guilt and the malleability of truth.  Continue reading “Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid”

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus Cover The Night Circus [2011] – ★★★1/2 

The Harry Potter generation is growing up, becoming a dominant group of consumers, and it seems that those books that contain magic or fairy-tale elements have the biggest chance of success in the market (see also Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004]). The Night Circus can be considered as yet another book which was written on the back of the success of Harry Potter and its atmosphere of magic. The Night Circus was also originally written as part the NaNoWriMo competition, and contains non-linear, multiple viewpoints narrative. In this story, two “magicians” have arranged for their protégés to compete against each other in a mysterious magic competition. Hector has bound his young daughter Celia to compete against Marco, a protégé of a mysterious man named only as Alexander. Little the “magicians” suspect that Celia and Marco may grow up to be attracted to each other romantically, meaning that the competition may end up to be far from the battle it is meant to be. Meanwhile, Chandresh Lefèvre, a theatrical producer, has plans to set up a different kind of a circus, which functions as a completely “immersive entertainment” for the crowds, providing “a unique experience, a feast for the senses” [Morgenstern, 2011: 74]. The strength of The Night Circus lies in Morgenstern’s ability to establish a truly magical atmosphere (of the circus), as well as in the building of an enchanting, fairy tale-like beginning. The main weakness of the book remains in the plotting and in the establishment of the drama. It seems that Morgenstern was so taken by the task of immersing the reader into her magic circus atmosphere that she forgot to pay attention to the need for a dramatic plot or a hero’s journey. The result is that The Night Circus is almost predictable, devoid of any drama excitement or even a story in a strict sense of this word. In the author’s zeal to establish a Romeo & Juliet-setting for Celia and Marco, she also managed to present romantic love which is very unsympathetic (see the spoiler section below).  Continue reading “Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern”

Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Tangerine Book Cover Tangerine [2018] – ★★★★   

Tangerine is a debut novel which is now both gaining visibility and provoking some strong reactions – there are apparently as many people who love this book as there are those who hate it. The story is about two women – Alice and Lucy, who take turns in the story to share their thoughts on past and present events. Alice, who shared friendship with Lucy in the past, is now married and lives with her husband John in Tangier, Morocco. Unexpectedly, Lucy also arrives to Tangier to rekindle her friendship with Alice after a year of separation. When John disappears, Alice and Lucy have to question both their relationship and their lucidity. The downside is that Mangan’s book gets much too close in its plot and characters to Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley [1955], but it is still an intriguing and enjoyable read. Mangan uses simple language and manages to weave a thriller which is slow-burning and deeply psychological, while also vividly evoking the colours of Morocco.  Continue reading “Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan”

Review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mother Cover Please Look After Mother [2008] – ★★★★  

“To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother” [Kyung-sook Shin, 2008/11: 27].

It is time for me to press on with the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge (YARC), and I am continuing with this challenge by reviewing a book by another South Korean author. In 2008, Kyungsook Shin wrote a book Please Look After Mother, which has now sold more than two million copies and gained numerous prizes. Incidentally, the novel was translated in 2011 by Chi-young Kim, a female literary translator who also translated Young-Ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. In this book, grown-up children of a family in South Korea are missing their mother. She disappeared at the Seoul Station while trying to catch an underground train with Father. Mother in this family has always been that unnoticeable centre of love and care to be relied upon at any time, and the book then asks – what if one day this stable and unnoticeable foundation crumbles? Upon the disappearance of Mother in the story, each of the children, as well as Father, are forced to rethink their previous image of Mother, recalling memories of the person they realise they hardly new and should have cherished more. Telling the story from different character perspectives, this book by Kyung-sook Shin is a little gem – insightful, bitter-sweet, moving and, finally, quietly heartbreaking.  Continue reading “Review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin”