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”

Review: Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

texaco book cover Texaco [1992] – ★★★★★ 

You say “History” but that means nothing. So many lives, so many destinies, so many tracks go into the making of our unique path. You dare say History, but I say histories, stories. The one you take for the master stem of our manioc is but one stem among many others.…” 

Some books shine through times, forever stirring spirits” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 325].

Some books have such a distinct, authentic voice, which tells of the plight of ordinary people, that they cannot fail to move their readers, defying logical book analyses. Martinique-born Patrick Chamoiseau wrote such precise book, with such a distinctive voice at the core of it, and it is called Texaco, published in French in 1992 (translated by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997). This undoubtedly great book, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992, reads almost like a fable, rather than a story, and evades strict categorisation. What can be said for certain is that the novel is undeniably powerful in its transmission of the emotion and the message. Told through the voice of the high-spirited, determined, but disadvantaged woman Marie-Sophie Laborieux, it presents a turbulent period in the history of Martinique, the French overseas territory, and focuses almost entirely on individual lives and life episodes. At the centre of this story, which spans from 1823 to 1980, is, at first – Esternome, an ex-plantation slave, and, later, his daughter, our narrator, – Marie-Sophie, who are both determined to survive through extreme hardship and discrimination to fight for their loved ones’ and their people’s right to live and enjoy freedom on their native soil. Sometimes the story reads like a highly subjective, almost chaotic, but matter-of-fact narrative, and at other times it takes a form of a strangely lyrical and poetic piece, which is even similar to a national ballad. The story may even sometimes appear in the form of a cry or a lamentation, a strange ode to the Creole culture, language and tradition. The impressive thing is that whatever mode the novel employs or impression it gives, it never loses its vitality, its importance, its power, its emotion. This is the story of and by the generations who fought hard for their right to exist and prosper, and it is this unique perspective which makes this book so exceptional.  

Continue reading “Review: Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau”

Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks Cover The Bedlam Stacks [2017] – ★★★

You’re not off to find the Northwest Passage on a thousand-mile plain of ice populated by six Esquimaux and an owl. It’s only Peru” [Pulley, 2017: 46].

When I found out that there is a book set in Peru, takes place in the 19th century, and concerns itself with Incan mythology, I knew immediately I had to read it because all these things appeal to me immensely. In the book by Pulley, we meet an explorer Merrick Tremayne, previously of the East India Company, who now resides in Cornwall with his brother. He has an injured leg and no prospects in England since his family fortunes are in decline. When his friend Clem visits him and suggest that he goes to Peru to fetch cinchona cuttings (which yields quinine), which can then help to cure malaria in India (on the orders of the East India Company), it seems like an impossible task. This is not least because there is a local monopoly regarding the trees in the region, and the journey can prove to be very dangerous. Merrick goes to Peru, with the aim to reach the village of Bethlehem or Bedlam, and soon finds that he needs to rethink his understanding of indigenous traditions, history and beliefs, and do it quickly if he wants to survive. The Bedlam Stacks is steeped in Incan folklore and has an eerie atmosphere, providing for a curious read. However, this book was definitely not a page-turner for me. It has a messy and confusing overall theme, caricature presentations, some unclear and dull descriptions, and – what I believe – a very unsympathetic character in the centre, all making the reading experience less enjoyable.  Continue reading “Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley”

Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Faceless Killers Book ReviewFaceless Killers [1991] – ★★★  

This is the first book in the Kurt Wallander detective series penned by Henning Mankell, a Swedish author, who in 1992 won for this book the first ever Glass Key Award, given to authors from the Nordic countries. The translation of 1997 is by Steven T. Murray. In this story, Inspector Wallander is called upon to investigate the savage double murder in Lunnarp, Skåne. A husband and wife (Johannes and Maria Lövgren) are found brutally killed with mysterious clues left behind, such as the fact that the killers allegedly fed the farm horse before they left. The investigation team soon notice that the area where the murders happened is very isolated, relatively peaceful, and they have no immediate suspects. As the investigation continues, Inspector Wallander confronts clues that point to the possibility of foreign nationals being responsible for the murders, and then have to deal with the hate crime and racially-motivated attacks. If the first part of this book is this exciting mystery-thriller where we also delve into the character of Wallander and uncover the extent of his personal problems, the second part of the book is a less compelling narrative of an investigation of another crime which leads to a predictable conclusion.  Continue reading “Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell”

Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet

the innocent anthropologist coverI. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut [1983] by Nigel Barley – ★★★★

In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, and choosing those that represent the most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly laid-back, and this concise book turns out to be funny and engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of the charm is that the account is surprisingly honest and humorous.  Continue reading “Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet”

Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

book cover 2I Have the Right to Destroy Myself [1996] – ★★★★ 

This will be my first book review as part of The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge 2019. Kim Young-Ha is a South Korean author and this is his debut novel, which was first translated into English by Chi-Young Kim in 2007. The book is set in Seoul and deals with rather dark and uncomfortable issues. Death is a prominent theme of this little book, and, even though it delivers a curious read, it is also rather shocking and racy at times, so giving a warning is justified. In the story, our unnamed narrator helps his clients to commit a suicide, and we also follow the lives of C and K, two brothers, who compete with each other for the attention of one enigmatic woman – Se-yeon. The author packs many thought-provoking messages into this novel, reflecting on art and popular culture, but also on the nature of truth, loneliness and dying. The enigmatic structure of the book, as well as the ambiguousness related to the identities of the characters in the story, guarantee that the read is interesting, even if morbidly appealing. Continue reading “Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim”

Review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

hotel du lac book cover Hotel du Lac [1984] – ★★★★1/2 

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling” [Brookner, 1984: 7], so begins the short novel by Anita Brookner, who was the recipient of the Man Booker Prize in 1984. Clearly, after such an opening, one would expect a rich, highly-descriptive, beautifully-written observational novel of some insight, and this is exactly what the reader gets. Those who are after some fast-paced action in their books should look elsewhere because Hotel du Lac is a quietly powerful, almost reflective, character-driven novel at the heart of which is one embarrassingly unmarried female heroine Edith Hope, an idealistic writer, who abandons her London home for a holiday getaway to be spent in a respectable hotel-establishment in Switzerland. At the Hotel du Lac, Edith encounters a puzzling-to-her company until she finally meets Mr Neville, a gentleman who may finally help our hopeless heroine to gain esteem and respectability in their eyes of the society. 
Continue reading “Review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner”

Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black cover Washington Black [2018] – ★★★ 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, Washington Black has certainly been on many readers’ radar. This is the tale of Washington Black, a young boy who is initially a slave on a plantation in Barbados. This is where we begin the journey: the year is 1830 and the setting is Faith Plantation, Barbados. Young Washington (or Wash) is raised by Big Kit, a female slave, who looks after him. Like the rest, Wash witnesses the death of his old master, and sees how his new master – cruel Erasmus Wilde – takes control of the farm. Wash then becomes an assistant to the eccentric brother of Erasmus – Christopher Wilde or just Titch. What follows is the adventure which Wash never imagined (but we, probably, all did). In fact, as an adventure, the story is predictable, rather boring, at times too unbelievable, and, strangely, unexciting. Edugyan introduced several exciting and even original plot lines (such as scientific endeavours), but all of them are dropped before they are allowed to continue. The characters are rather caricaturish and shallow, and even though the beginning and the writing are strong, the issue is still that there is nothing fresh in this story (it follows a very familiar journey). The author has virtually nothing original or fascinating to add to an already long and established (“done-to-death”) literary theme of slave liberation, and hardship and discrimination experienced by a community outcast living in the early nineteenth century. Continue reading “Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan”

Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

the book of hidden things cover The Book of Hidden Things [2018] – ★★★★ 

This book is the first English-language novel of an Italian author Francesco Dimitri. It is set in the south of Italy and begins with three friends arriving to a cafe in Casalfranco, Puglia, and missing the fourth person. These guys made a pact when they were young that each year – on 10th June – no matter where they are in their lives they will return to their home town and toast their childhood friendship anew. This year, Fabio, a London photographer, Tony, a Rome surgeon, and Mauro, a lawyer in Milan, miss their leader – Art…well, a genius, a source of all wisdom. Art’s disappearance triggers unpleasant memories in the minds of all three men, and when they find some damning evidence in Art’s house, their worries escalate to a whole new level, making them question their own sense of what is real. This book’s content is a bit disturbing and sometimes graphic, but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. In fact, it was a page-turner for me and I liked the writing style. At the centre of this fast-paced and very atmospheric thriller-story is this claustrophobic mystery, and when we are not getting to the heart of it, we are considering the significance of countryside folklore and nostalgia for the past.  Continue reading “Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri”

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange & mr norrell book coverJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004] – ★★★★★

Neil Gaiman called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellthe finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”, and I will agree with him. It is a very long book, but it is totally absorbing from the very first page. The novel begins in autumn 1806 with Mr Segundus, a theoretical magician, wanting to know why there was no more magic done in England. He is a new addition to the society of magicians in York, England. Practical magic has declined in England and there are apparently no practising magicians left in the country. The profession of a practising magician has fallen in reputation, and Mr Segundus comes to inquire of another magician who lives in Yorkshire why this is the case. He finds, however, that not only the reclusive Mr Norrell has an established library filled with rare books on the practice of magic, he also claims to be a practising magician himself! Mr Norrell soon desires to establish himself as the only practising magician in the country. The episodic-in-nature plot is delightful to read, and, in style, it reminds of Dickens’s Bleak House [1853]. Delving into the British folklore, Clarke opens up a fascinating magical world, which you will not want to leave, and takes her task quite seriously. Inside the book, one will find a gripping adventure-mystery, great characterisation, unforgettable atmosphere, humorous sequences, and the masterful use of the language. The book’s story, format, style and language all give the impression as though the book was written back when it was set – in the 19th century. In sum, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite brilliant in every respect, and I cannot recommend the novel highly enough. As I would like to discuss the book here in some depth, the following review will contain spoilers. Continue reading “Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke”

Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

the hour of the star coverThe Hour of the Star [1977] – ★★★★★ 

This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some physical transformation before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life.  Continue reading “Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector”

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

the dry cover1The Dry [2016] – ★★★1/2

This bestseller is a debut novel of Jane Harper. It is a murder mystery with two tragedies at the heart of it. The setting is a small town of Kiewarra, Australia that was shaken by the gruesome murders of the Hadler family: Luke, Karen and their son Billy. The official version is that Luke, the father, killed his family before committing suicide. But is this open-and-shut case as straightforward as it seems? Aaron Falk, a police officer in Melbourne, arrives to his native town of Kiewarra for the funeral of his estranged pal Luke, and finds out that there is more to the deaths than first meets the eye. The Dry turns out to be a good, atmospheric book, but not necessarily because of the story. The story is actually quite typical in the genre of “small community” mysteries and not something extraordinary or special at all. What elevates this book above many others is the assured execution of the plot, the particular atmosphere conveyed, as well as some insightful character study. All this provides for an emotional and engaging read. Continue reading “Review: The Dry by Jane Harper”

Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

The Last Children of Tokyo CoverThe Last Children of Tokyo [2014] – ★★★★

Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot.  Continue reading “Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada”

Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Time of the Hero [1963] – ★★★★The Time of the Hero

The Time of the Hero is a controversial novel written by the Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The fictional story takes place in Lima, Peru at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, a military educational establishment once attended by the author. In the story, a group of cadets is trying to steal the questions to the forthcoming chemistry exam, while being involved in a number of other similar “illicit” activities, such as fighting among themselves, bullying younger year groups and drinking. Little everyone knows that one careless action while trying to copy the exam leads to one irreparable tragedy and the shocking cover-up. It is without any doubt that The Time of the Hero is a literary work of great importance. The novel may not be easy or enjoyable to read, but its message is powerful, its themes – timeless, and its simple story is all the more significant for portraying what it means to be human and good in a society where cunningness, forcefulness and competitiveness are encouraged and lauded.   Continue reading “Review: The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa”

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist [2014] – ★★

The Miniaturist, “The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller”, has received much praise, but is all the hype justified? The original idea for the book came to the author in Amsterdam, where Burton first saw Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house at the the Rijksmuseum. In her fictional story set in the 1680s, eighteen-year old Nella comes to Amsterdam after her advantageous marriage to an older rich merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella finds out that Johannes lives in a house with his domineering sister Marin, and soon begins to question the security of her husband’s finances. When Johannes gifts Nella a miniature doll house, which is the exact replica of their own home, Nella does not hesitate to ask for services from an elusive miniaturist, leading to unpredictable turns of events. This atmospheric novel is perfectly readable, but it is also too simplistic and melodramatic. Even worse, despite some obvious hints, The Miniaturist does not put its main mystery about the miniaturist or the doll house (the cabinet) at the centre for the readers to uncover; the novel’s male characters are superficial; and its surprises – preposterous. The plot does not go anywhere or reveal anything of substance, and the actions of the characters are as nonsensical as the ending is unsatisfying.  Continue reading “Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton”

Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly Book ReviewA Scanner Darkly [1977] – ★★★★1/2

In this novel by the brilliant science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick the setting is dystopia some time in future and the location is Anaheim, California. Bob Arctor (also known as Fred) is an undercover narcotics agent working for authorities while pretending to be a drug addict. His task is to trace dealers, including his on-off girlfriend Donna, to a source of drug supply. Other major drugs aside, the one drug which really causes havoc in the dystopian future is Substance D, a highly addictive matter, which, in a long-run, causes a strange and irreversible brain damage. Arctor knows all the dangers, but the problem is that no one is immune, and, soon, the undercover agent senses that he has gone too far in his goal to make himself indistinguishable from his drug addict pals. Due to the subject matter, this atmospheric story is far from being a comfortable read, but it is also fair to say that A Scanner Darkly is a philosophically and psychologically insightful work of science fiction with the strong character study at its core, as well as witty dialogues and a powerful message.  Continue reading “Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick”

Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

news of the world coverNews of the World [2016] – ★★★★★

He broke down the .38, cleaned it, reassembled it. He made a list: feed, flour, ammunition, soap, beef, candles, faith, hope, charity” [Jiles, 2016: 177].

The story begins at Wichita Falls, Texas during the winter of 1870 and centres on Captain Kidd, aged seventy-one, who “travel[s] from town to town in North Texas with his newspapers and read[s] aloud the news of the day to assemblies” [Jiles, 2016: 3]. When Captain Kidd comes across a little girl who has recently been an Indian native and is now abandoned to the newness and vulgarities of the civilised world, Captain promises to deliver the girl back to her German-American family in South Texas. The issue for Captain Kidd is that Johanna was taken captive at the age of six and now, at the age of ten, considers herself a Kiowa. What follows is the journey of two vulnerable people on the treacherous road to the area of San Antonio, where Johanna’s aunt and uncle allegedly await her return. This is not only a tale of an exciting journey through the American South, which delves into the culture of native tribes, but also an emotional journey of two people whose resilience to hardship and kindness to strangers are the only guarantors of their survival.  Continue reading “Review: News of the World by Paulette Jiles”

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Book Cover Burial Rites [2013] – ★★★

Burial Rites is a debut book by Hannah Kent, an Australian author. It tells a fictional account of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a real person who had the distinction of being the last person in Iceland to be executed through a death penalty after her conviction for the murder of two men. In the book, Agnes is one of the three murderers convicted, alongside Fridrik Sigurdsson and another servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. While Agnes awaits her execution, she is transported to an ordinary farm dwelling of Jón Jónsson, his wife Margrét and their daughters Steina and Lauga. While there, Agnes starts to forge human connections and even friendships, while also slowly starting to tell her story and her version of events. Burial Rites is slightly better than an average novel because it is well-written, takes a true story as its starting point, and also because it more or less conveys the fascinating peculiarities of that atmospheric place which was historic Iceland. However, on all other fronts, the book is a disappointment. It may be important to know the name of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and the Icelandic folklore, but there is not enough material here for an engaging book and, what is even worse, – the characters presented are unmemorable and one-dimensional, and the main character of Burial Rites is almost unsympathetic. The novel’s beginning may be strong, but the rest of the book is excruciatingly tedious and painfully predictable.  Continue reading “Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent”

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things Cover The God of Small Things [1997] – ★★★★★

Once in awhile a book comes your way which is so powerful in its message, so inexplicably poetic in its presentation and so wondrous in its understated emotion that you may wonder how come you have not read it yet. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is that book to me. The notable feature of the book is that it is a debut novel which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. It takes a cross-generational approach to tell the story, but at the heart of the plot is a pair of twins – brother and sister – seven-year old Estha and Rahel respectively – who grow up in Ayemenem, part of Kerala, India, in the late 1960s. This is a turbulent time to grow up because there is political unrest and uncertainty in the country, and financial and other hardships, as well as all kinds of injustice, are seen as just part and parcel of life. However, the twins are not concerned with the Big Things, and are eagerly anticipating the arrival of their nine-year old English cousin Sophie Mol. Her father and the twins’ uncle Chacko is welcoming his ex-wife Margaret and his daughter to India. At the height of all the excitement, however, everyone is quite oblivious to the dangers lurking just on the periphery of their lives, and these dangers seem to just wait for all the circumstances to conspire in their favour to strike the final blow into the very heart of the small lives of Ayemenem.  Continue reading “Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy”

Review: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

The Mystery of the Yellow Room Cover The Mystery of the Yellow Room [1907] – ★★★★

Obvious signs have never been anything to me but servants; they never were my masters. They never made me that monstrous thing, a thousand times worse than a blind man – a man who cannot see straight” [Leroux, 1907/Ed. 2010: 126]. 

This French author influenced Agatha Christie and wrote The Phantom of the Opera [1910]. His name is Gaston Leroux, and some claim that his The Mystery of the Yellow Room is the greatest detective story in the world. This is a serious statement, but his story is also an ambitious one. Influenced by the stories of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, Leroux conjured up his own, deciding to focus on the most fascinating of cases – the seemingly impossible crime. Miss Stangerson gets attacked in the Yellow Room of the Château du Glandier in a manner which says that her attempted assassin could not have easily come to the room, and nor could he have escaped from it at all after the attack. Miss Stangerson locked the room behind her when she went to her room and got attacked, and the adjoining room was occupied by her father Mr Stangerson and Old Jacques, their employee. The crime could not have been committed, or could it have? The case falls into the hands of a young crime journalist Joseph Rouletabille, and the young man is determined to prove that he is a match for the famous criminal investigator Frédéric Larsan.  Continue reading “Review: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle [2018] – ★★1/2The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle Cover

In his debut novel, Stuart Turton takes an unusual twist on a murder-mystery. The Inception, Groundhog Day-mentality meets The Rules of the Game/Gosford Park setting. In other words, the setting is one grand manor house in the UK with the shooting season underway, and our protagonist Aiden Bishop wakes up each day in a body of one of the guests who was invited to the masquerade at the house to celebrate the arrival of Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the house owners. Now, the rules are set for Aiden. He cannot escape the house and will have each day repeating itself, waking up in a body of a different guest, unless he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Each day repeats itself and Evelyn gets murdered. Will Aiden be able to solve her murder and free himself from the never-ending loop? The great things about this book are the brilliant concept, including all the psychology behind it, and enticing setting. However, those who got too excited should also hold their horses. This is because as the novel progresses, it becomes a dull, pretentious and overly confusing read. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw book cover The Turn of the Screw [1898] – ★★★★

<<This review will contain spoilers>>  

Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream?” [James, Ed. 2004: 33].  

This is a horror novella penned by James in 1898 at the invitation of Robert J. Collier for his magazine. First published as a series, it tells of a hired governess who comes to Bly, a country estate in Essex, to supervise two children, Miles and Flora. The children are orphans under the responsibility of their uncle who, in turn, does not have much time to spend with them and resides in London. The young governess willingly assumes her responsibilities, being totally delighted to be in charge of two beautiful, lovely and well-behaved children in such grand estate. However, Bly soon opens its horrors to the governess and she becomes aware that there are at least two ghosts in the house that haunt the children. The Turn of the Screw is now infamous for its multiple story interpretations and all kinds of meanings that can be read into the text. Nevertheless, whether one reads the story as a straightforward ghost tale or as a more complex psychological study of one nanny losing her mind, it is still a scary and intriguing read, which leaves much to think about and discuss upon finishing.  Continue reading “Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James”

Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries Book Cover The Luminaries [2013] – ★★★★1/2

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (T. S. Eliot).

What is the most intelligent, complicated and intricately-designed novel of this century? Eleanor Catton wrote it in 2013 and titled it The Luminaries. The winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013, The Luminaries is a multi-layered tour-de-force, running about 820 pages, that tells the story of mysterious events, including a disappearance and a possible murder, taking place in a gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1865 and 1866. To tell her story, Catton employs astrological charts, planetary positions and planetary relationships vis-à-vis zodiac constellations, thereby twelve leading male characters in her novel correspond to twelve zodiac signs, such as Scorpio or Sagittarius, and other characters relate to planets, such as Venus or Mercury. These characters’ interactions with each other take a complicated turn and, as we find out more about some eerie coincidences, undoubtedly influenced by astral positions, the mystery deepens and we uncover hidden relations, start to doubt our prior perceptions and come full circle to glimpse at the real truth. As Te Rau Tauwhare explains the origin of the word “Hokitika” to Balfour, “Understand it like this.Around. And then back again, beginning” [Catton, 2013: 106]. Beautifully-written and cleverly-construed, this rich in detail/description novel may be difficult for the reader to get into at first, but the book proves hugely rewarding and could really be called a modern classic.  Continue reading “Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton”

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko Book Cover Pachinko [2017] – ★★★★

“The Japanese could think what they wanted about them, but none of it would matter if they survived and succeeded” [Min Jin Lee, 2017: 117]. 

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko had a long road to publication, almost thirty years, being first conceived as an idea by the author in 1989. The story spans four generations, and tells of Korean immigrants who come to Japan to seek a better life in 1933. This family then faces all manner of hardship, including poverty and discrimination, in the new country. For example, we follow Sunja, a daughter of a cleft-lipped, club-footed man, who takes her chance to marry a missionary, Isak, and goes to Japan to give birth there to her son, whose father, Hansu, remains a powerful man in Korea. In Japan, she meets her brother-in-law and his wife, and their life to survive begins. This emotional novel is a real page-turner and this is so not only because of its fascinating story set in a particularly turbulent time period. Pachinko is sustained by its vivid characters whose resilience in times of hardship is somehow both admirable and chilling. The characters’ determination to survive and succeed in conditions which are designed to make them fail will not leave the reader uninvolved.  Continue reading “Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee”

Review: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills Book Cover A Pale View of Hills [1982] – ★★1/2 

<<This review may contain spoilers>>

Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel is quite a puzzle. In the story, we first meet Etsuko, a middle-aged woman from Japan who is now residing in the English countryside, while her younger daughter Niki lives in London. As Niki comes from London to visit her mother, Etsuko starts to reminisce about her previous life in Nagasaki, Japan. We eventually start to guess that Etsuko’s memory of the suicide of her older daughter Keiko in England is somehow linked to Etsuko’s recollections of her friendship with a strange woman Sachiko and her daughter Mariko at the time that she lived in Nagasaki. This short novel is an easy and, at times, intriguing read, with Ishiguro sometimes making insightful points about Japanese culture and the effect of the passage of time on his characters. However, it seems that this subtle novel also asks too much from its reader. If there was a mystery somewhere in the novel’s midst, then it was not sufficiently elaborated upon or given sufficient space to breathe for the reader to really care; and, if there was no real mystery, then the point of the novel is partly lost. Ishiguro seems to have wrapped his story in too many layers of subtlety, thereby forcing his readers to make a giant leap forward in terms of imagination so that they finally decide to start unwrapping the unwrappable. It is unlikely that there will be a satisfactory meaning or explanation found by the novel’s end. Besides, while the reader may want to delve into possible interpretations of what he or she has just read, there is also the possibility that the interest will be lost half-way through.  Continue reading “Review: A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro”