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  1. Stuart MacBride goes weird. OK, he's done weird before with Halfhead - a sci-fi manuscript he had written before he became famous, but this one is a police procedural that, like Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman, goes very weird indeed. And I'm not sure I liked it. DS Lucy McVeigh is an ambitious young detective, based in Oldcastle (which in an amusing break in the fourth wall is described as the murder capital of Scotland) and assigned to re-heat the cold trail of The Bloodsmith, a serial killer who likes to drain the blood of his victims. If DS McVeigh is to use the opportunity to make the step up to DI, she needs to keep one step ahead of the office politics as well as solving the mystery. At first we imagine that DS McVeigh is a brilliant but maverick officer, but as we progress it seems she is quite willing to bypass procedure altogether. She is a deeply flawed heroine. This perhaps explains the presence in her life of the Professional Standards investigator - who may be picking up the pieces from a past incident but seems to have more than a passing interest in the current investigation. And then there is the curious stalker that DS McVeigh keeps spotting on the periphery of her vision. There is a plot twist that comes at the three-quarter point but even the most obtuse reader will have spotted that things were not quite right well before it is revealed. This surreal direction makes us reassess what we have seen before, but I am not convinced there is a genuine and consistent connection between the people before the twist and after it. Maybe that is part of the weirdness. The overall effect, though, is that a novel that does not quite manage to sustain the suspension of disbelief. In all honesty, there are times it drags a bit. Stuart MacBride is a great crime writer whose work is generally gory, humorous and interesting. This one has the gore, but it is not MacBride's best work. ***00
  2. This is a strange little novella - part psychological mystery and part documentary. Kayleigh is a former moderator for an online social media giant (think Facebook) who has been approached by a researcher looking for the inside dope. Kayleigh explains how she was attracted by the slightly higher pay rates than those offered by other call centres she manually reviewed reported videos and memes against rigidly pre-determined criteria. The guidelines left no room for common-sense, it was just the application of mindless formulae to decide what should stay and what should be taken down. All while being measured against strict performance criteria - 500 reviews a shift, 90% accuracy and no longer than 7 minutes away from her desk on a toilet break. Interesting though it is to see this illustrated, it is not going to surprise anyone. Against this backdrop, we see Kayleigh's relationships and friendships.In particular, we see her form a relationship with her co-worker Sigrid, and watch as it disintegrates in a mess of paranoia and anaesthesia to normal social boundaries. Kayleigh and her colleagues are exposed so regularly to bizarre social media content that it becomes normal. Constant exposure to the m most noxious conspiracy theories result in the moderators accepting them as the truth. They apply the social media guidelines of acceptability to their own encounters - whereby violence is perfectly acceptable if it is merely implied, or has an educational purpose, or was contained in a different post to the consequences. This half-life world is cleverly done. The moderators never know quite what they are encountering in work or in life - is it real or staged? Is the narration faithful or unreliable? Is Kayleigh deceiving the researcher who is interviewing her or is she deceiving herself? We Had To Remove This Post is a short work that can easily be read in a single setting. There is not much room in it for deep character development and, apart from Kayleigh, none of the characters really has enough space to develop an independent existence or narrative arc. At the same time, the brevity of the work doesn't quite give the reader time to miss this extra depth. It is only at the end that there is a bit of a sense of having been preached to; of research having been turned into fiction rather than the story leading the way. Overall, this was a good way to pass a couple of hours but I'm not sure how much it offered beyond the investigative texts it references at the end. ****0
  3. I loved Peter Hanington’s first two novels and I had high Hopes for A Cursed Place. Unfortunately I think he delivered only in part. A Cursed Place reacquaints the reader with Patrick Reid, now flying solo for BBC Radio 4, reporting on the student protests in Hong Kong in 2014. His erstwhile mentor, William Carver, has stepped away from the front line to teach journalism in a London college and they have fallen out of touch. Meanwhile, a huge corporation, Public Square, is doing dodgy things at one of its mines in Chile – and doing even dodgier things with the data collected from their internet search side of the business. Just like the previous novels, the scene setting I gorgeous. Especially during lockdown, the opportunity for the reader to travel so effortlessly to Chile, Hong Kong, California and London is priceless. The dust of the desert, the pressure of journalism to copy deadlines, the oak panelled boardrooms of the BBC and the campus style offices of a tech giant – they feel real. The Umbrella protests give the action a clear definition in time and reawaken actual memories. But. Spoiler alert. A Cursed Place is clearly only half a novel. The major narrative strands are unresolved. At the end, the bad guys are still doing bad things; the BBC is in partnership with the corporate evil; the dynamite evidence on the memory stick that drives the whole story has not been revealed; and the student journalist has uncovered more unrevealed dynamite in corporate reports. The power dynamic between the two main baddies is unresolved, the henchmen remain on the loose, Soledad – the Chilean girl with the power to bring down the house of cards remains on the run in a Santiago bus station; and the various good guys who are being pursued do not seem to have done anything to bring the chase to an end. Apart from closing with the words “to be continued” there is not much more that could have been done to lead into a sequel. Then there were the issues in getting to the non-ending. Characters seemed to behave in quite illogical ways. Jags, the Public Square security man sent to Chile to kill troublemakers at the mine, for example. Why did he work with a local partner when he professed to prefer working alone? Why did he have to kill his partner in crime? Why did he then have to engage with the dead man’s family? Why did he decide – after a lifetime of contract killing – to put his own life on the line to protect his late associate’s daughter? Why did a global internet company even care about the mine? And why would they suddenly decide to create a museum next to the mine? Why would Fred Curepipe, the gazillionaire owner of Public Square, engage in international conspiracies rather than follow the more conventional route of creating a legacy through benefaction? And why would he and his wife Elizabeth swap the good-guy/bad-guy roles half way through? And there’s the role of journalism, of the BBC. I know journalists have a high opinion of themselves (and Peter Hanington is a serving BBC journalist), but is an expose on the Today Programme about data harvesting really going to send an army of hitmen into action around the world, harassing the families of behind-the-scenes radio production crew? Besides which, after the partisan role the BBC played in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, are we really expected to believe in Radio 4 as the last bastion against misinformation and misuse of data for political ends? The novel is perfectly readable, pacy and engaging despite some of the rather cliched characters. Even if the plot is trite – some kind of mash up between James Bond and Dave Eggers’ Circle (and others of that ilk) – it is entertaining enough. I will read the inevitable sequel, but I still feel short-changed by this one. **000
  4. In ten years' time, it is to be hoped, Covid will be a distant memory. People will look back at that time and ask: did people really do that? did people really think that? The Fell is the third Covid novel I have read, and the only one of the three to have been faithful to the scale of the virus - that is a virus which had an enormous impact on our lives, but with a mortality rate of between 1-4%. Sarah Moss alone seems to have had confidence in depicting the impact it has had on our psyche without having to exaggerate the deadliness. So in this short novel, we find single mother Kate isolating at home with her teenage (and autistic?) son Matt after exposure ti the virus. They live in a small house backing onto The Fell, and they are claustrophobic. Kate steps out for an illegal stroll on the fell one evening just to clear her head. Unfortunately she slips and injures herself. The Fell becomes The Fallen. Matt eventually realises Kate is not coming home and is left with no option but to break cover and ask his neighbour Alice for help. Alice is shielding, so conversations take place from behind locked doors. Alice calls out the mountain rescue, which we join through the eyes of Rob, who is worried in case the rescue messes up his weekly contact with the kids... The Fell gets inside the characters heads; it exposes the dilemma between doing the right thing by Covid and the emergency unfolding around them - the dilemma between preserving self and serving the community - between seeking help and avoiding punishment for breaking the rules. It was particularly elegant to juxtapose Alice's self-interest which came through following the rules; and Matt/Kate's self-interest which comes through setting the rules aside. The story is straighforward and the beauty is in the interior monologue; the thought processes that chime with any of us who have lived through Covid and isolation. This captures a strange moment in time, and it captures it so very well. *****
  5. Does the World need a Dystopian novel set in a future Canberra? Well, if you're looking for a post-apocalyptic landscape you could do worse than the ACT. The Last Woman In The World starts off with Rachel, a reclusive glassblower living in a remote studio next to a river deep in Eden-Monaro, visited by a distraught young mother, Hannah, and her sick baby Isaiah. The world, it seems, has collapsed. There are bushfires, there has been a pandemic, and now demons have caused almost everyone to drop dead just where they were standing. Isaiah need antibiotics and Rachel agrees to set out with Hannah, overland, to Nimmitabel where her sister Monique is a GP. For half the novel, then, this is a road trip through Nimmitabel and on to Canberra. I'll be honest, it dragged. We have seen it before - The Road, Station Eleven and others - dodging the enemy, bushfires and the rogue survivors. Then when Rachel and Hannah reach Canberra the surreality starts. The demons are there in force; while rival factions of survivors are bunkered up planning their next moves. But like the road trip, once you've got the idea it rather drags on. Oh, and Rachel drip feeds this idea of a devastating incident in her past. There are passages that are very evocative. I loved the glass-blowing studio and the scenes in and around Parliament. But it felt like there was fair bit of filler to join up these rather accomplished set pieces. Hmmm. ***00
  6. The Measure has at its heart a great premise - that everyone, overnight, received a box containing a string of a length equal to their allotted lifespan. It's improbable - and probably impossible - but taking the concept forward it offers a bullet point list of issues that could/would arise: * should people look at their string or not? * should the state have a right to see the strings? * should prospective employers be able to ask to see the strings? * should election candidates be able to use their strings for political capital? * if lifespans are predetermined, is someone culpable for ending a life? * should people with short lifespans be able to have children? * can relationships work between people with different lifespans? * should people with short lifespans be entitled to legal protections? Each one of these questions is then addressed in turn using characters specifically created for the purpose. These characters never feel as though they have any life beyond illustrating their particular dilemma. The world in front of us seems to be populated in equal measure between people with short and long strings when the real (American) world would have almost everyone with a lifespan of between 65 and 85 years. So the great idea (3 stars) kinda falls flat on execution. It feels like a series of ethical essays rather than a novel. It's perfectly readable and does provoke thought, but there is very little emotional engagement. ***00
  7. What a wonderful romp! Free Love is a comic novel set in 1967, the summer of Free Love and widely held to be the gateway from traditional values to modern thinking. Tessa Hadley provides a journey through this gateway, seen through the lives of the Fischer family. Roger Fischer is a meat and two veg kind of middle class guy - war hero - senior civil servant in the Foreign Office - father of two school age children, Colette and Hugh, and happily married to Phyllis. His friends are well connected, and his social life has revolved around country estates. The Fischers' lives are mapped out on a path to moderate success within the establishment. Enter stage left, Nicky Knight - the son of an old family friend who is invited to dinner one evening in the hope that he might hit it off with Colette, the dowdy 16 year old daughter. Nicky has just established himself in London with writerly ambitions, so the hope is that Roger could provide mentorship while Colette provides friendship. What a tangled web we weave - Nicky leaves with the wrong woman. Phyllis, seemingly on a whim, follows Nicky into 1967's bohemia - art, sex, drugs and West Indians. The characters are all grotesque. They have major character flaws, they are not terribly virtuous but they all have a likability that is enhanced by a shifting point of view that shines a spotlight on each of them in turn. Phyllis is the star: naive, romantic and self-absorbed; with Nicky the immature and shallow co-star. The supporting cast of immediate family, aunts, hippies and schoolfriend are a comic delight. They all bring piety and leave with disgrace. The narration is done with a vein of humour that sets the reader in a position of moral superiority. The scene setting feels right. The contrast between the brown affluence and the colourful poverty; the supposed shift in society - while the values actually turn out never to have been quite as far apart as all that. Roger is less conventional than he appears; while Nicky and the kids seem quite happy to jack in their free hedonism to chase careers. Novels often try to capture a momentous time through a limited car of characters - this one is that rare beast that succeeds. There feels like there is a world beyond the lives of these characters; it feels genuinely as though they are the link between two worlds and two ages. This is not a remarkable or terribly surprising story. The strength is in the way it is told. *****
  8. Thanks Tay. In truth, my life has changed a lot during lockdown and I don't seem to be reading so much - and for a while, not at all. I doubt I will be a prolific poster again, but happy to stop by and see familiar faces.
  9. My Monticello is a thought-provoking and damning indictment of race relations in the USA. Set in a near future, law and order in Virginia – and probably the wider US – has broken down. Rampaging mobs of white supremacists have taken over the streets. They have driven out black and minority ethnic groups – at least those who could run fast enough. A group of escapees end up together on a bus and at the suggestion of one of their number – a university student called DaNaisha – they land up in Monticello, the former home of President Thomas Jefferson. DaNaisha, our narrator, explains that she had worked as part of the visitor experience at Monticello. She knows her way around the extensive estate, helping the group to secure the site and bunker in. The story unfolds as a fairly standard tale of a group of misfits forced to shelter in a site that is normally used for other purposes. There are elements of The New Wilderness and Station Eleven as the group battles for survival, repurposing ancient heirlooms to address current needs. DaNaisha’s grandmother, MaViolet, is unwell and needs rest in bed, so she gets Jefferson’s bizarre box bed that straddles two rooms (you have to Google it to really get it – it is too improbable to be described with words alone). The beauty of this story is that MaViolet – and hence DaNaisha – believe they are descended from President Jefferson through the children he had with his slave, Sally Hemings. We explore Jefferson’s somewhat ambiguous relationship with slavery. He apparently called for its abolition while owning slaves himself. He had children through what seemed to be an enduring relationship with Hemings, promised the children would be freed, yet they lived much of their lives in bondage. Jefferson believed in the inherent superiority of white people and believed that if/when slavery was abolished, it would be necessary for the emancipated people to leave because he believed the legacy of oppression could only end in violence. So here we are, with Jefferson’s heirs working as tour guides in his estate, now claiming the estate for themselves and for their own purposes. This makes one wonder how we should view the founding fathers; how today’s African Americans can relate to American history; and what their legacy should be in a society that was built on their labour. There are no easy answers, and Jefferson was right, at least, in recognising that master and slave were going to struggle to create a society that was shared on equal terms given the unequal starting points. Running alongside these questions of legacy, My Monticello depicts a love triangle as DaNaisha finds herself cloistered with her current (white) partner, Knox, and her former (black) lover Devin. This offers a clear metaphor as DaNaisha has to choose between a future that is true to her heritage or one which gives her a stake in the white entitlement of successful, corporate America. She is genuinely torn, and the denouement of the story is the choice she makes. This is such a clever work, mixing despair with optimism; juxtaposing squatting with claiming of rights. DaNaisha is a bright, articulate and very imperfect spokesperson for a generation of young, black Americans trying to reconcile a painful past with hopes for a future, set against a backdrop of an America in which they are often not welcome. Please read this fantastic work. Note: it seems the US edition of My Monticello is a collection of six short works. The text I have read contains only My Monticello itself and not the other five works. *****
  10. I have read a couple of Sarah Hall’s previous novels and not quite gelled with them. For some reason I was seduced by Burntcoat’s cover and some of the spruiks from writers I respect. I went for it, but perhaps I should have run with my head, not my heart. Burntcoat is the oddly named converted warehouse used by internationally renowned artist Edith Harkness. Edith constructs major public art projects and is working on The Witch, an iconic motorway installation that might be a Scottish version of The Angel of the North – made out of burnt wood, rising from the bushes. Yes, I know. The mental image of a woman rising from the bushes does not immediately make me think of witchcraft, but perhaps I have been on too many overland holidays. This art construction project involves techniques from Japan, burning the wood to preserve it. Meanwhile, Emily shares her space with Halit, a Turkish kitchen worker, and together they shield from a deadly virus that is sweeping the world and is definitely not Covid. A million Britons will die – some from the fever and some from the residual aftereffects. Long Notcovid. And she reminisces of a past love called Ali, and a childhood marked by the illness of her mother Naomi. All this is told in a fragmentary way with non-linear narratives. For the most part, the actual narrative is lucid, but there are digressions into metaphysics that never felt worth unravelling. Sometimes this fragmentary style can be used to great effect, gradually building a complete picture. Other times it just feels like hiding a story that doesn’t cohere, hiding details for the sake of it. So here, for example, the author goes to great lengths to delay the reveal that Halit is Turkish, although frequent use of Turkish will give that away for those who recognise the language. Except, for some reason, he is also half Bulgarian. Or leaving it for some time to reveal that Ali is short for Alistair rather than being of Arabic origin – I mean, why? Or being intentionally unspecific about the geographic location. There are redeeming features. Some of the individual scenes are well constructed. Ali’s doorstep tantrum, perhaps. Edith’s slightly strange relationship with her mother. Plus, most mercifully, Burntcoat is short. Overall, though, there is just this sense that Burntcoat is trying too hard to be arty without too much real substance behind it. ***00
  11. Broadwater is a depiction of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham through 14 inter-linked short stories. Each story is a vignette, focusing on one resident of the estate, but these characters sometimes pop up in one another's stories. Some are bleak, some are inspiring. As a body of work, they do a successful job in showing the diversity of people who live in the estate - nuances that the newspapers sometimes miss. But none of the stories is quite long enough to build a real sense of engagement. So although the stories are interesting enough in the moment, they don't particularly leave an impression. It would be great to see a full length novel to really bring one or two of the characters to life. ***00
  12. I came to The Coward as fiction - it was only half way through that I twigged that the lead character, Jarred McGinnis, had the same name as the author. That led to a chilling penny-dropping moment. We meet Jarred as he is being discharged from hospital after a life-changing accident. Jarred can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair for mobility. He has no job, no friends, no home. He lands back with Dad - who he resents as a drunkard and a neglectful parent. Jarred is rude, resentful, ungrateful and gives a clear impression that he was this way before the accident. Disability has not turned him into a saint. We see Jarred take small (metaphorical) steps to building a life, building a relationship with his father, and building social connections - often despite his own efforts to thwart the process. And there were flashbacks to a previous life which Jarred blamed himself for wrecking. This focus on Jarred, rather than on the disability, made for a really compelling and quite startling read. It broke so many conventions of how disabled characters are portrayed. And it became clear that Jarred was not going to compete in the Paralympics, was not going to become a disability ambassador or counsel small children to steer clear of drugs. Jarred was going to adapt, but he wasn't going to change. That is why the realisation that this was autobiographical was all the more spine-tingling. The honesty and bare emotion in the way he portrayed himself was so visceral. This can be a difficult read - especially when the reader sees Jarred making consistently poor choices. But there is also a dark humour and a human warmth underneath it all. By the end, and as the back story emerges, you almost feel for Jarred... *****
  13. The Yield is a complicated novel wth multiple strands. 'There is the story of August Goondiwindi, returning from Europe to her Indigenous community for her Pop's funeral. The community has been sold out from under them to a mining community and this is a source of tension between the community and the white landowners. Then there is a dictionary of Wiradjuri language that Poppy was composing when he died. The definitions give examples of usage which tell their own story of the community and its history both before and after European settlement. And then there is correspondence from the German Minister who founded the community in the late 19th Century, initially as a place of refuge for the Indigenous people from the massacres that were taking place all around. In between these stories, we know the sorry history of Australia and we can join the dots. There are no easy answers. The story of August is strong and immediate. There are family skeletons; there is the conflict between life in modern Australia and remaining faithful to Tradition. There are also questions about the role of white Australians as the narrative is taken forward - do they have a place in the Indigenous story, and on whose terms? Certainly not on the terms of the curators of museums who want to value Indigenous culture from behind velvet ropes. Parts of The Yield are compelling. But, for this reader, the dictionary was an interesting concept but an interruption from the story. Yes, it all came together in the end, but the journey felt like hard work at times. The dictionary approach has been done before (e.g. The Dictionary of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano) and I have yet to see it flow - there is a necessary jerkiness to the story and a difficulty with pacing. But as a technical mechanism to link the past to the present, it does succeed. The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award and is well worth the time (and sometimes effort) to read. It will be interesting to see where Tara June Winch goes next, and whether she can carry a less tricksy narrative. ****0
  14. There's something about writers writing about writers that fails to spark. Slightly more successful than writers writing about composers, but it's a close call. The Magician is a novelisation of the life of Thomas Mann. I suspect that Thomas was a Mann of his times - famous in Weimar Germany, awarded by the Nobel Committee, feted in America during the war, and his works were apparently purchased in such quantity to make him hugely rich. He rubs shoulders with the great and the good; on the Rooseveldts' guest list, feuding with composers, and touted as a future President of a post-war Germany. And for all that, he seems to live on in name only. I'm not sure that anyone (at least in the anglophone world) still reads his works. So we have a story of the writer set against a backdrop of world politics. The plight of the family - a large family with Jewish connections and more than the standard 10% quota of homosexuality - trying to maintain their ruling class entitlement as the order crumbles around them. The writing flows well, but the events are more interesting than its witnesses. Mann himself is portrayed as a fence-sitter, unwilling to condemn Naziism for fear of personal reprisals while seeking sanctuary overseas. But this is perhaps an unfair portrayal. Mann was actually quite vocal in his condemnation of fascism and (I understand) quite overt in his themes of homosexuality in his writing. This, with the consequence of making him a target of the McCarthyites. But this really feels glossed over in favour of a conveyor belt of little dramas brought by his many children, siblings and acquaintances. The pacing of The Magician is odd. The pacing is led by family events, leaving matters like the war to slip by almost unnoticed while other world events that coincided with family drama are unfolded very slowly over many pages. That might have felt more natural if Thomas Mann had been portrayed as a more swash-buckling character but as it was, it felt as though we were focusing somewhat on the side-show. Colm Toibin has a gentle narrative style, and nothing jars. At a sentence level this makes for a pleasant read. I just can't help feeling that the style lends itself more to ordinary folk (and judges) on the east coast of Ireland, exploring their feelings, rather than following major historical figures and world events. I preferred this to The Master, but how I'd like to go back to the The Blackwater Lightship. ****0
  15. True Crime Story purports to investigate the historic disappearance of Zoe Nolan, a first year university student. It takes the form of an investigation led by budding crime writer, Evelyn Mitchell, and comprises interviews with her family and associates, found documents, and a correspondence between Evelyn and Joseph Knox, her mentor on the project. It feels like one of those talking heads TV documentaries but with this sinister stream of metafiction running through it. The technique allows the story to kick off at full pelt; there's no lengthy lead-in or scene setting. The story itself is creepy as anything, and the drip feeding of information as Evelyn uncovers it adds a timeline that seems quite independent from the actual events surrounding Zoe's disappearance. This is so well done; I could find no seams or cracks in the plot. The real proof of the pudding was my urge to read right up to the last word, then go back to the beginning to see it all over again. This reportage style is not new, but I cannot remember having seen it done better. *****
  16. Agnes Day has been brought by her mother Bea to join in a social experiment - living with a self-sustaining community in the last true wilderness. Bea's partner Glen had designed the program, and as the infant Agnes's health deteriorated in the city, joining up to the program looked like a ray of hope. The New Wilderness is an exercise in world building. The wilderness, its mountains and forests, its deserts and rivers, the coyotes and bears and deer and rabbits... The world feels real, visceral. The passage of time, the passing of the seasons is done so well. However, it's not a happy world. The program is overseen by Rangers - who enforce rules and impose fines. They require the participants to trek for months from one part of the wilderness to another, ostensibly to collect mail and fill in forms at the various Ranger posts. The participants have a Manual they must follow, with updates handed out at each check-in. The participants cannot settle, cannot build permanent structures, cannot farm, cannot leave any trace of their presence. It's like trying to turn the clock back on evolution, and not allowing any re-evolving. As a study it is scientifically flawed; it is really not much more than some Reality TV concept but without the cameras. It's hilarious until yet another one of the participants/contestants meets a tragic end. The plot is as much a vehicle for addressing themes - team dynamics, mother/daughter relationships, ethical dilemmas, religion, loyalty, immigration, prostitution - as it is about narrative resolution. There are nods to Lord of the Flies, Zimbardo, the Hunger Games, Exodus. I even almost saw parallels to The Beach. It's very rich; not necessarily very original but it does an excellent job in bringing the ideas together. No resolutions, though. Just the ideas. If there's an area that could have been stronger it would be the characterisation. Too often, the characters were filling roles/positions rather than having their own complex and conflicting values. Agnes was a bit everyman; Glen was too perfect; Carl was too evil; Bea was too selfish; everyone else felt like extras. Some nuances did come through right at the end, but it seemed to be more in the form of explaining past actions rather than revealing true characterisation. Overall, though, this was a novel brimming with ideas, with a great sense of place, and a good dose of sinister foreboding. I loved it. We follow Agnes as she ages from a young child to an almost-adult. *****
  17. Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones. Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - seems to have made curious decisions in the past. Antara was sent to a strict school run by nuns. Tara separated from her wealthy husband and became a beggar outside the Club - that haven of the middle classes. Tara joined the Ashram and wore white, despite not being in mourning. Antara resents this, and resents the intrusion Tara is making on her now comfortable life as a conceptual artist. The real strength of the novel is Antara's voice. She is self-entitled, whining, rude, ungrateful and hilarious. She may well have cause for complaint, but her petulance in putting that view across gives the reader a strange sense of schadenfreude. The legitimacy of her complaints is further undermined as the reader gradually discovers the appalling way she has behaved as an adult. There are vignette like chapters - almost like Slumdog Millionaire - with each one offering a different facet of life in India, spanning the social classes. There are real, compassionate characters in the novel. But always, there is Antara's voice. Burnt Sugar is not a long novel and it is tempting to start all over again to extract every drop of brilliance from this novel that starts so sweetly and becomes so bitter. *****
  18. Real Life is a fabulously well crafted capture of a moment in the life of Wallace, a black, gay postgrad working in a biochemistry department of a Midwestern university (presumably Madison-Wisconsin). Wallace hails from Alabama - not desperately poor, but very much an outsider whose sexuality did not sit well with his race in the deep south. He hopes that he might fit in Madison, working in a program that has never taken a black student before. The opening chapter, a party on the lakeside pier, threatens to become The Great Gatsby as Wallace sits in admiration of the sophisticated white students, comfortable in their sexuality and their high status in an equal society. Subsequent chapters, though, reveal that Wallace has a much more ambivalent relationship with this world of privilege. He loves the bodies, make no mistake, but he looks for - and correctly perceives - little slights and signs that he is not completely accepted in this world. Even his friends and closest associates seem to feel that he should be grateful for what he has; that when judged by the yardstick of "his people", he is doing well to have the opportunity of a doctorate and a good job. And those who are less close seem to be more overt in their discrimination, inevitably siding with others as disputes are resolved. This is not a racism founded on verbal abuse and violence, but on small assumptions and prejudices that affect small, transactional matters that add up to a larger whole. Interestingly, though, Wallace seems to encounter no difficulty in Madison for his homosexuality. How enlightened everyone is. In contrast, though, Wallace's white lover Miller goes to great lengths to assert his own lack of homosexuality - even as he lies in bed with Wallace. There are scenes of violence, hidden tensions, infidelity. Secrets are betrayed, feuds fought, possibilities explored. There are ambiguities of bereavement when estranged parents die. This is a novel about young people trying to work out where they fit into the world, running up against the boundaries to see whether they push back. Much of their behaviour is bad, reprehensible. But the world that Brandon Taylor evokes feels real and nuanced. For the most part the tensions remain as undercurrents. It is also commendable that, for a novel with so many issues, they are used sparingly in support of exploring Wallace's "real life" experiences. He is not a black activist. He is not a sexual warrior. He works diligently and engages with different circles of friends and acquaintances. One of the most memorable scenes finds Wallace engaging with Dana, a highly regarded but inept colleague. And in keeping with the low key, there's no riotous crescendo or dramatic moment of enlightenment. The strength of Real Life is the humanity, warmth and credibility of the world that is created. In particular, Miller is a comical character: a big doofus with a terrible sense of timing - like a labrador puppy that has not quite grown into a large body. The encounters, the rivalries and jealousies feel real and are described with a forensic precision. Every word, every expression feels right. This is an accomplished work. ****0
  19. Tambudzai is an underachiever. Sent to a private school in Rhodesia, studying at the University of Zimbabwe, she land up in Harare unemployed, no plan, drifting between hostels and rooming houses. She seems not to have any great sense of urgency in finding either a job or a more stable form of housing. She quite her job as a copy writer in a fit of pique, and lands up as a school teacher for which she has no qualification. And then she has a breakdown and her life falls into chaos. Is this a metaphor for Zimbabwe - once the breadbasket of Southern Africa with an educated population and a strong economy, claiming independence, cruising along for a bit until the descent into chaos? And then placing itself like a zoo exhibit be re-colonised by European tourists. The timeline of the novel is not quite clear. There is one anchor point in 1999, but the story seems to play out across years - perhaps decades - and ends in the time of the farm seizures. Independence figures prominently as a milestone in many of the characters' lives but the changes seem to be more gradual. Replacing the former white establishment, we see the gradual rise of a black establishment similarly borne on patronage and good fortune. Tambudzai seems determined to be on the wrong end of the changes, seeing her former classmates and colleagues becoming successful through playing a system that she refuses to fit into. There is a Cook's tour of Harare life with burgeoning small businesses, earnest workers, the occasional protestor and a functioning healthcare system. There's violence too, and a clearly demarcated social hierarchy, but where a European reader might expect deprivation there seems to be quite a substantial middle class. Even life in the hostels seems quite orderly with kitchen rotas and groups heading out on shopping expeditions. There are trips to the country where, again, the poverty seems to be more of an idea than a reality; villagers happy to perform like natives in return for the tourist dollar and some supporting infrastructure. There is a real and vibrant sense of place; a sense of direction - even if Tambudzai is going in the opposite direction to everyone else. And much as Tambudzai might seem to be perverse, she is asking a legitimate question - why would an independent Zimbabwe just seek to replicate the inequalities of the colonial system in the pursuit of a European lifestyle? The drifting nature of Tambudzai's life is compartmentalised into three distinct sections, but it really is more of a general flow. At times, this can feel as though there's an insufficient narrative drive to hold this together, but I think the common themes of squandered opportunity and claimed victimhood keep this together. This Mournable Body does have one particularly striking (or irritating?) feature in its second person narration. I have never loved this as a technique. It usually feels forced and self-conscious. Tsitsi Dangarembga gets it as right as anyone, but this reader would prefer to have seen a more conventional first or third person perspective. Nevertheless, the novel did feel compelling, and the flashes of humour gave it a human tough that offsets any intellectual trickiness of technique. This Mournable Body is an impressive novel with a complex protagonist - its has been long listed for the Booker Prize - but I'm just not sure how much this will leave a deep impression. ****0
  20. The worst that could happen by avoiding a book based on a bad review is that you miss out on something that you might have enjoyed. But as long as you read something else that was enjoyable, it's no biggie. We vaunt read everything. But on the other hand, there's much more danger from picking a book based on a good review - think of the time and money you'd lose if the book doesn't work for you. Generally, I know there are some readers whose tastes match mine quite closely and I pay their reviews a lot of attention. I also know there are some readers whose tastes seem to be polar opposite to mine - and I also pay their reviews a lot of attention
  21. We Germans is a thoughtful novel. It takes the form of a letter from a former German soldier who had fought on the Eastern front in World War II, answering his Scottish grandson Callum's question about what life was like in the War. And interleaved are Callum's reflections, now an adult remembering his deceased grandfather. This is an extremely nuanced narrative point of view. It is unusual to hear a German perspective from World War II, but this clearly is a narration that the reader should assume has been sanitised by the grandfather. So we have a grandfather who is repentant at having stolen food from starving Russian peasants, but who scarcely mentions the deathcamps. There is almost no mention of the Nazis, the German government, the deathcamps. At one point, the Grandfather recalls that the main difference between his own comrades and the Russians was the shade of green of their uniforms. Now perhaps a naive soldier at the time might have been oblivious to the politics, but it is simply not conceivable that an elderly German looking back at the War would think that the politics - the genocide - was not worth a mention. This looks like a man who is admitting to letter offences to avoid responsibility for the big thing. There is narrative about the campaign in Poland and the Ukraine; the degeneration from theft through to combat and killing. There is a story about soldiers who are detached from their Regiment trying to decide whether it would be better to be captured by the Russians or by their own side. There are issues of officers living the high life while the troops starve. This is all written in rather plain, almost journalistic prose. This can create a rather sterile feel, but adds to the feeling that this is a carefully rehearsed story. The lingering impression is an elderly man pretending to offer an honest analysis while willfully denying any stake in the Kollektivmitschuld - while his grandson clings to the belief that his grandfather was an honorable man. ****0
  22. As You Were is a story about Sinéad Hynes, a youngish woman in the West of Ireland, living with a terminal diagnosis. Her old life was shattered by the diagnosis - on her way home she saw a lone magpie and this divides her live into Before Magpie and After Magpie. Sinéad decides not to tell anyone - least of all her husband and three children. As her condition worsens, Sinéad requires more intensive palliation and is eventually hospitalised. There are also thoughts about the dying process - about how is becomes public property. However much Sinéad wants to keep it a private affair, she cannot do this. She believes she is entitled to a private hospital room, but she is put on display in a ward with others. The doctors' conversations are audible. Sinéad is expected to make particular choices, to respond in a predictable way. Dying has become a conveyer belt, the manufacture of a commodity. Sinéad can try to hold out, but inevitably there comes a point where her secret cannot hold out, and she has to confide. As Sinéad languishes in hospital, she is able to observe the rivalries that play out between her fellow patients and their families. There are opportunities to explore their back-stories, giving vantage points from different strata within the Irish social order - whether from an uneducated woman with a large family; a doting schoolteacher; a local politician or the migrant healthcare workers who are part of the new Ireland. Their stories are compelling, sometimes heartbreaking. There was a sense that, as the patients died and passed the baton on to their children, so too the old order of Ireland was dying and being replaced by new hope. Goodbye to the all powerful church and state. Goodbye to the pious morality. Goodbye to the control of women's bodies. This could have been a sad book, a dreary book. But it isn't. Sinéad is (somewhat ironically) full of life and determined not to just curl up. She still has opinions; she has a wry humour, she is still interested to watch the Irish economy disintegrating - seeming to compete with her in a race to the grave. This is a novel about a person, not a death. It's actually quite uplifting. ****0
  23. I embarked upon The Bass Rock with high hopes. I loved All the Birds Singing, so a new Evie Wyld novel should have been right up my alley. Alas, it was not to be. I mean, do you ever get one of those novels that you get half way through and you try to describe what it's about and you can't? This is one of them. There are three (possibly four) narrative threads - a body found on a beach; a woman coming to close up the house of her late Grandmother in North Berwick in modern times; the domestic affairs of that grandmother in the post-war period; and a young girl accused of witchcraft at some unspecified time in the past (presumably the 1590 North Berwick witch trials). If there is a common theme, it is the subjugation of women by the men in their lives - whether it is through accusations of witchcraft, controlling women's fertility and finances, infidelity, domestic violence and murder. But The Bass Rock seems to have it all in a bit of a jumble. The narrative structure is a straitjacket. There are repeated journeys from today, to post-War, to wiches, back to post-War and back to the present day. Interleaved with the body on the beach narrative. Goodness they are written in an oblique way. There seems to be a never-ending parade of characters, some of whom are in both of the Grandmother narratives. But new people seem to keep coming to the party and it is an effort to keep track of who is who. And because the narrative is so obscure, all the punches pulled, I gave up trying to keep track of it all. I kept reading in case there was a big reveal where it all clicked into place [spoiler - it doesn't]. But by the end, I really felt I was going through the motions, reading about characters I didn't believe in, doing things that bored me, not bothering to read between the lines to get the subtext of anything that might really be happening. I like Evie Wyld; I like North Berwick; and I like gannets. But they don't seem to blend together very well. **000
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