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  1. Home Fire is that rare beast: a novel with really important points to make while also being a cracking read. Through the eyes of five characters, we get a dissection of what it means to be British-Asian in the current world. Initially, we meet Isma, resuming a career in academia in the US after bringing up her orphaned younger siblings in London. Picking up her former life does not start well as she is detained by security at Heathrow Airport and misses her flight. Then we meet Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone. His father, as a Muslim politician, is keen to distance himself from extremism by introducing ever-more draconian laws to contain the “threat”. Eamonn is a spoilt rich kid who finds contact with other British Pakistanis way more confronting than mixing with the white, public school elite. Then, the high point for me, we travel with Parvaiz, Isma’s younger brother, to Raqqa to join the Caliphate. This is a portrait of hope, naivity and a desperation to belong to a family, shattered to smithereens when reality bites. But thanks to modern anti-terror laws, there is no way back from such a decision. In very few words, Shamsie created a living, breathing world and a highly conflicted character who goes on a major journey of self-discovery.Then back to Britain with Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka, and the final two chapters in the company of the Home Secretary himself, Karamat Lone. Lone is a monster, a self-serving egotist who has no understanding of - and even less care about – the impact of his policies on those affected by them. Even when they touch his own family, he is willing to sacrifice their rights for his own political career. And what is the point of that career – the power – if he only uses it to try to perpetuate it?Home Fire is, apparently, a modern day Antigone. But I think that does the novel a disservice. This is not a recasting of an ancient Greek play; it is not derivative. It is a searing critique of the conflicts of identity; of personal interest and family loyalty within a community that is being vilified on a daily basis. How far can it be right to punish an easily identifiable group for the transgressions of some of its members; how far should those who do transgress be dealt with through the existing judicial system or how far can it be right to expel them from the system altogether.This novel spans half the globe, offers five very different stories, and poses difficult questions. There is not a wrong word in this tight narrative, spanning ultra-realism through to the absolutely surreal. By the end, the story is in a slow motion, dream-like sequence. And the ending is absolutely not expected. Home Fire is a really fantastic novel but, if it has one Achilles Heel, it could be its fixation in the present moment. The novel relies on the current public mood, the current legal (and illegal) situation, the current conflict in Syria. Move on five years – perhaps less – and what seems to immediate now may seem very fleeting and out of date. I hope the future is not as bleak as Home Fire would have us believe. *****
  2. This book was selected by the Oprah book club, which was enough to make me refuse to read it since many of her books feel very chick-lit to me. But a friend heard it was about time travel (it isn't) and was dying to read it. Also the author was coming to a speaker series that I often attend and so I broke down and read it. And then I heard him read from it and talk about it last night. I was wrong to have rejected it and lucky to have heard him speak. I don't know what those of you outside of the U.S. know about U.S. history, so at the risk of telling you something you know, the Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses that allowed slaves to flee their bondage. They were hidden, provided for, and guided to freedom, but it was a very dangerous undertaking for everyone involved. This book starts out as a description of slave life on a Georgia plantation. Although being a slave is one terrible level of misery, the farther south you went, the worse it generally was. So I think it is generally accepted that slavery in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was particularly terrible. After a terrible incident, the main character, Cora, decides to flee with a friend of hers, Cesar, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia, where he was taught to read, to Georgia. And when they flee, Cora finds that the Underground Railroad is exactly that...a railroad. They take various trains and when they come up out of the ground, they are in alternative versions of South Carolina and North Carolina during slave times. What happens to Cora and what she (and the reader) finds out is very interesting, but also thought-provoking. For example (but not the only example), very late in the book, the reader finds out something that Cora doesn't know and will never know, which makes it clear that the lifelong anger she holds against her mother is ill-placed. The speaker came last night and he was funny and thoughtful. He also dealt well with the 2 instances of rambling series of observations masquerading as questions from the audience. He also seemed very genuine. One person asked him how he felt when white people wrote about the experience of slavery (he's African American) and he said, 'if they can do it, great. My main character in this book was female, so I don't think it's impossible to write from such a different point of view. You have to use your imagination." I really enjoyed his talk and will probably look up some more of his books. Highly recommend.
  3. review of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster Auster's latest novel starts with chapter 1.0 being the one constant in the story of the four Ferguson's that each part of the novel starting with the arrival of Ferguson's grandfather to New York and the boat over. We have the same genetic make up of the one character but in four different scenario for each. So in one, Archie is a star sports athlete, another he had been poorly as a child while a third. Each unique in their own way and each creating a different character though with some similiarities. In the first Ferguson for each of the chapters, this seems more to try to refresh people on the history of the period chosen. Some characters reoccur in the four novels for example Amy. Some things overlap, it seemed to me that in each the young Ferguson has a penchant for double acts with people whether through the films of Laurel & Hardy or the part he plays at a summer camp where him and a friend pretend to be Steinbeck's Lennie & George. A bit of this reads like a best of collection of Paul Auster's novels, there is one Ferguson that translates French poetry, another that uses films as a source to help them through a difficult time, . But this isn't a bad thing. I think if you like Auster's other novels, you probably will like this one. While I found the size of it daunting to begin with, I think that these familiar surroundings did help and I did give myself a brief recap prior to starting each chapter of which Ferguson this is. Overall, it really works and Auster knits and sews a splendid story together on the four Fergusons. I found it to be superb. A very engaging read. I did think early on maybe it would be good if the chapters ran consecutively for each of the ferguson's rather than each of the fergusons' chapter ones following each other. * * * * *
  4. Elmet is an interesting novel that would probably have slipped by unnoticed had it not been long listed for the Booker Prize. Set in a seemingly isolated spot of South Yorkshire, once part of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, we find John Smythe, a bare-knuckle boxer living with his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, in a self built house in a copse in an ancient forest. John appears to live with little support from the wider world; he forages, hunts and traps, and farms his food. When he works, he is paid in kind. His life is almost mediaeval. But in this story, narrated by Daniel, modern details creep in. There is the East Coast Main Line that passes nearby; there are cars; a casino; shopping trips to Doncaster. John - or Daddy as Daniel calls him - seems to be a link between the modern land and its history. Famed for his fists throughout Britain and Ireland, John seems to have links to the Irish travelling community although he is clear that he is not a traveller. Quite the opposite, he has found his spot in the woods and wants to stay in it. The story unfolds piece by piece. We find the family in former times living in a regular house, owned by Granny Morley, on an estate at the edge of a seaside town. We find Daniel and Cathy already being ostracised by their peers in that town. And then we find that the land around their wood is owned and farmed by unscrupulous farmers; many of whom also own the houses and charge rack rents. Elmet challenges modern values of property, employment and trade. Why shouldn't people like John - and perhaps some of the former coal miners of the area - be able to live according to their own rules? Why should they have to accept the lot that they were born into, paying the price for their ancestors' poor decisions and missed opportunities? And what about if it wasn't ancestors who took the poor decisions but those who find themselves in poverty today? While Elmet doesn't exactly present easy answers, it does tend to be unsympathetic towards landowners. The main timeline is then interwoven with flash-forward narration as an adult Daniel looks for his missing sister. This successfully adds a bit of intrigue. So Elmet is an ideas book. Where it doesn't quite succeed is the narrative voice. Daniel switches effortlessly from being monosyllabic and repetitive, an uneducated man trying to convey complex and sensitive emotions with a limited vocabulary - to being some kind of minor poet waxing lyrical at all around him. At one point, he even tells us of all the beautiful things - the stars and the creatures of the night - that he was unable to notice in his haste. Coupled with this, some of the narrative seems to be deliberately opaque - what did happen to Daniel and Cathy's mother? - some of the dialogue is clearly expository - and some people's motives didn't really make much sense. I guess in a stylised novel things didn't really have to add up perfectly, but I think it made the whole feel somewhat inconsistent. I am glad to have read Elmet, and the positives far outweigh the negatives, but it does feel like it didn't quite land. ***00
  5. I loved Reservoir 13 but I'm really not sure why. Do you know those letters that friends used to send at Christmas with all their news? The kind of hypnotic/soporific way all the news blends into one storyline, the banal and the significant presented with equal weight? Because that's pretty much what Reservoir 13 is, times thirteen. Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl, goes missing. Each chapter of the novel reports another year since her disappearance, depicting the life of the village and its surrounds. There are couplings, fights, feuds. There are foxes and fieldfares. There is a rhythm to the year's cycle, broken by the human action in the village and on the moors and around the 13 reservoirs that surround the village. Despite the passage of time, it is timeless. And as every year passes, the memory of Rebecca Shaw and her disappearance dim. But every couple of years, some trace of her turns up, often unnoticed. Children grow up. Marriages are made and broken. One of the villagers is naughty and goes to prison, then returns. There is nothing of any great consequence to the world, although the little pieces of nothing are enormous for those involved, for a while. People are born and people die. The novel is a masterpiece of holding multiple threads together, drip feeding them over time as matters progress and then letting them fade when they are done. Some of the lines run for years; some are over and done quickly. The characters feel real, the place feels real, the reader feels almost like God watching over it all. It really is spellbinding, even though it is so inconsequential. This is the bit that I cannot fathom: the writing is pedestrian and journalistic (almost Robinson in Space-like); the suspense is minimal; the plot is thin. So how and why did this get so much under my skin? I don't think this is the best book of 2017, but it must be quite close up there. It is unusual without being demonstrative. It's not quite like anything I have read before. *****
  6. So shortlist announced today as follows: 4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber) Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Orion Books) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House) Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Canongate) Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate, HarperCollins) Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals, John Murray) The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury) Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House) Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet, Little, Brown) ------ I've read Colson Whitehead, I'm reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was planned as my read in 2 or 3 books, though maybe I'll move it up now
  7. Unnamed narrator, a brown girl growing up in Brent, gets the dream job working as a general factotum for an international rock star called Aimee who is really Madonna wearing a Kylie mask. The story dips back and forth in our narrator's life. There was a friendly childhood rivalry with Tracey - who lived fun the flats on the wrong side of the road. There was the job working for a youth TV company. There was the mother's political career as she became MP for Brent West. There were romances. The really constant line, though, is Aimee. This is a good insight into the world of the super-rich; the superstars with retinues, with diaries chock-full of trivia, with a quest for new challenges when everything has already been achieved. So we follow our narrator, following Aimee to The Gambia where the plan is to set up a school for girls. Aimee has the big idea, her retinue have to make it happen. It is a classic case of imposing western values on a developing country; the school is not what the community needs but, by God, it is what they are going to get. But the Gambian line starts to get bogged down with personal relationships. As the Aimee party all seem to hook up with Gambians, it gets mighty dull. Do I care that A fancies B and B fancies C? I think not. And the Tracey line is also interesting, although it is not quite clear how friendly rivalry in teenage became hostility in adulthood. Tracey is a dancer and pursues her dream. Our narrator doesn't really have a dream but pursues it anyway. There was supposed to be a significant moment, but when it is revealed it carries too much weight. There is enough in the book to make the reader smile. There is pop culture, satire, race, class, politics. But there is also this saggy, baggy middle that goes on way too long and allows the interest to wane. I didn't buy the ending at all - which required our narrator to become a disgruntled employee and for her employer to discover that fact. Both these premises were implausible. But at least it brought a long novel to a somewhat belated end. This sounds negative, but on balance the good did outweigh the bad. But if only there had been a stronger editor... ***00
  8. Once upon a time, Ali Smith and I were besties. I loved her books, she loved my reviews of them and we smiled at each other at book festivals. Those were the days. Then, Ali Smith wrote The Accidental. This had a rollicking riff of an opening chapter-ette. It was like the Trainspotting Choose Life riff. It rocked. And somebody said to Ali Smith - you are a fantastic writer and you should do more of that. So she did. Now someone needs to tell her that she is good, but not that good. Her writing is not strong enough to carry a plotless book, despite more than one attempt at it. First and foremost, she is a storyteller. So in Autumn, we have a short collection of ideas; a girl who befriends her neighbour, then she visits the neighbour as he grows old and she finds him a bit of an embarrassment. There are references to Brexit - so perhaps we see Mr Gluck, the neighbour, as a bit like Europe. Basically good but people just want to move on. Hmmm. And once this metaphor lodges, you can't shift it. There's no story, no character development. Just a lot of lists and riffs. As the end approaches, very slowly for a book with so few pages, it starts to dawn on the reader that there is no big idea that is going to tie it all together. It just ends, as suddenly and pointlessly as it began. There are plenty of cultural references along the way - a TV show that is Bargain Hunt in all but name, the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop phone number, Jo Cox getting murdered, but none of it seems to be taking us anywhere. I know some people have raved about this book but I really cannot see it myself. I see Ali Smith's next novel is called Winter. Maybe it offers even slimmer pickings than Autumn.
  9. For me, this was the Book Without End. It started so brightly. Two young boys willing to wear dresses and dance to entertain the miners in some wild west saloon. It's nice. It's different. It's unusual. It earns the novel a second star. But then the boys grow up and can no longer pass as women, so they go off a-soldiering. They meet some Indians and kill them. They meet some more Indians and don't kill them. They meet some more Indians and kill them... It was just so repetitive. And being honest, I never really bought the narrative voice either. It sounds arty and forced. Let's be arty and poetic, but toss in some grammatical tics to remind us all that we are dealing with burel men whose rude speche we must excuse. This is not a long book, but I struggled to get a third of the way through it in a week. Every time I thought of picking it up, I got a sense of dread. And every time I put it down, I felt that it was an hour of my life that I would never get back (even though, I suspect, these hours lasted no more than 15 minutes apiece). So, a third of the way through, I decided to stop. Some who have read the whole damned thing tell me that the last couple of chapters are quite good, but they agree that the vast middle meanders. This is the point where I have made a pact with myself not to read any more Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed Enais McNulty and Annie Dunne, but more recent stuff has felt tired. I feel as though Sebastian Barry is writing for himself and not for me. That's his prerogative, and it is clearly working for him and for Booker judges, but I'm not going to be part of it any more. Sorry Sebastian. **000
  10. It is difficult to do anything new with the Irish village novel, even with the coming and going of the Celtic Tiger. It is a well trodden path going all the way back to John McGahern, Liam O'Flaherty and back to Somerville and Ross and William Carleton. You know the thing, slightly quirky individuals, oppressive priests, scary schoolmasters, licentious publicans, etc. Yes Mike McCormack does manage to wring some life from the theme, principally by narrating in a stream of consciousness voice. His big trick is to write the novel as a single sentence - although in fact he doesn't, he just uses a lot of conjunctions and eschews full stops and capital letters; there are plenty of dead ends where these would appear in any other novel. So, a quirky narrative style. It is used to zip back and forth in the life of Marcus Conway, a civil engineer who is refusing to sign off the foundation slab of a new school building because it was poured from three different concrete mixes. This brings a touch of the urban to the pastoral. And it opens the door to exploring local government corruption, the plight of the construction industry in post-GFC Ireland and the extent to which a man should stand up to authority. And there are forays into Marcus's younger life, courting, young children, school. At times, it gets quite engrossing. The problem, though, is that the narrative style does not allow any theme to resolve as it has to segue into something else, and it leaves the reader no natural pause to stop and reflect on what has happened. The result is a general impression that the novel is good, but without leaving much of a lasting impression. You need mental pauses to process and remember stuff and Solar Bones doesn't give you that. The end of the novel contains a reveal - fairly pointlessly - that I suspect is a device Mike McCormack employed to avoid having to bring the various narrative strands to a conclusion. I won't say what it is, although I doubt that knowing it would change anything about the experience of reading the novel and it was included in the publisher's blurb on the original micro-press edition. Solar Bones is a solid book that leans quite heavily on being quirky rather than entertaining. However, it never quite reaches excellence and I'd hesitate to recommend it either as a story or a social commentary. ****0
  11. Lincoln in the Bardo. OMG. Wow! Really, this is a stellar work. George Saunders is a widely acclaimed writer of short stories and this is his first full length novel. In broad terms, Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, has died and been laid to rest in a crypt in a Washington cemetery. President Lincoln is overcome with grief, having been compelled to host a huge White House party as Willie lay dying upstairs. What makes the novel is the narration. It features multiple narrators, completing one another's sentences, telling one anothers anecdotes. Oh, and some of them are fellow residents of the cemetery. This is all interspersed with snippets of historical texts - no idea whether they are genuine or fiction - but they blend seamlessly. And these narrators change sometimes every line, sometimes they get to tell a page or two. The three principal narrators, Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas, have their own characters and their own backstories. Very much, in fact, this is a novel of backstories; a mishmash of tragic short stories charting the social history of the USA leading up to the civil war. There are racial tensions, old-timey values, soldiers, slaves and prevalent religion. There are class issues, hokey self-proclaimed professors, genuine intellectuals and obscene drunkards. There are thieves, child molesters, murderers and suiciders. Each issue gets its moment in the moonlight; each character is equal in death, regardless of what they might have done in life. President Lincoln may be the president, but he is just another man. The fundamental difference between the living and the dead, though, is that the living still have the power to change their destinies. And little Willie Lincoln is the catalyst forcing the characters to confront their own reality. But none of this really conveys the awesomeness of the total immersion effect of the narrative structure. The world is so perfectly created; the voices so identifiable but so authentic; the logic of their world unfailingly consistent; and the balance between the personal and the societal issues so perfectly struck. The reviews on the cover claim that this is like nothing we have ever read before. In this case, the hype is justified. (My top tip for the Booker 2017 - you read it here first). *****
  12. Exit West is a strange fruit. Set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, Saeed and Nadia fall in love. Both are middle class, employed and have good lives, stretching the boundaries of what is permissible in a conservative society. They have access to satellite TV, internet, smartphones and transport. They have everything that they could want in a material sense. But we are told from the outset that the city is on the brink of a ten-year war. As Saeed and Nadia become closer and closer, their city and their lives crumble around them. The communications networks fail, their employment evaporates, their families fragment. With nothing left, they exit west. They land up in a world that doesn’t want them and they don’t much want it. The writing style is breathtaking. It is lucid but poetic, reading almost like a folk tale. There are often references in the past tense to Saeed and Nadia’s destiny, as though written in the far future looking back on contemporary society – with the references to smartphones making it clear that the story is set firmly in the present day. The setting is an enigma. For the first half of the book, the time is now but the location is unclear. The reader may say Syria, but it is never specific. But in the second half of the novel, the locations are clear but the time is more vague; we find a Europe awash with refugees from all over the world (some of whom are white); shanty towns spring up; the army impose containment and surveillance techniques. Perhaps it is a prophecy of a near future or perhaps it is hyperbole for literary effect. The effect of this, though, is to shake the reader’s certainty that Saeed and Nadia are from Syria; they could come from almost anywhere. The novel strikes a rich balance between the global upheaval and the personal loves and tragedies of Saeed and Nadia. The young lovers are imperfect, but very human. They are not just faceless numbers, they are individuals with education, aspirations and something to offer the world. Their struggle is matched by those around them, and those we see in our lives every day. The people we may perceive to be threatening may well feel frightened and threatened themselves. They will certainly be feeling dislocated. And unlike those western migrants who bounce back and forth between developed nations, the refugees don’t have the option of returning home any time soon, even if home as they knew it might still exist. To add to the wider perspective, each chapter includes a vignette from another country showing various degrees of upheaval, instability or general uneasiness. One particularly striking feature of Exit West is the lack of narrative of the physical process of migration. It is portrayed as going through a door from one society to another. This is jarring when first encountered, but as a literary device it allows the focus to be on people in their old lives and their new lives without the attention being diverted to the short and daring journey itself. The device adds to heavy stylisation of the novel where time and location have a dreamlike quality. Exit West is an important and timely novel. It doesn’t offer easy answers; if anything, it actually justifies the feeling of resistance of the nations in which the refugees land up. There are no winners; there is simply a world of pain caused when nations fragment. Mohsin Hamid gives the reader much to ponder, written in the most beautiful and beguiling language. *****
  13. History of Wolves tries so hard to be a work of literary genius - I mean, it really, really tries. We have non-linear timelines blending more than one story; we have ambiguous words and gestures; we have teen angst blended with mature reflection; there's prolepsis aplenty. And there are woods and dogs. And dogs and woods. And a stuffed wolf. For the first wee while, it is actually pretty readable. Madeline (Linda) is a rather awkward student at a Minnesota high school, taking some delight in irritating her fellow students and teachers. She appears to have a love-hate relationship with Lily, whose family seem to live in even greater poverty and weirdness than Linda's own family, and her delight when Lily's clandestine relationship with Mr Grierson, one of the teachers, is exposed. Meanwhile, Linda pre-occupies herself with worming her way into the lives of Patra and Paul, her four year old son, when they come to live in the house across the lake. The story mentions a trial to come, and it is all jolly intriguing. But by half way, when a dramatic incident throws things into turmoil, the book unravels. The present day story, which is substantially less interesting and had previously just been an occasional reference in the background, starts to become more prominent. The references back and forth are choppy, and once we know about the dramatic turning point, the story is more or less done. Sure, there are still occasional details to emerge, but mostly these have already been inferred by the reader. Instead, there's lots of dull Duluth and some impenetrable back and forth trying to bring the two story lines together. By the end, there is much confusion, a sense that there are big symbols if only the reader had the patience to work them out, and an eager eye on the number of pages to go until the end. If I am looking for the positives, I would say it conveys a good sense of Minnesota and, after Fargo, it is probably the second greatest artistic work I have encountered that has been set in Minnesota. **000
  14. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a long and sprawling novel that seems to cover a vast swathe of current political issues, seen through the lens of modern Indian society.We open with the story of Anjum, an intersex woman who identifies as female despite being brought up as a boy. She finds others in the same position and joins a community with them in Delhi’s old town. But gradually, she branches out on her own and forms her own community of oddballs and misfits, hanging out in a graveyard. Much of the mis-fitting seems to stem from religious and caste based prejudice.Then the story shifts to Kashmir and the struggle between Islam and Hinduism as it escalates into full-on war. We meet a different cast of characters, one of whom, Tilo, an architect and activist, is to be the lynchpin of the Kashmiri part of the book. However, Tilo’s central role is not immediately obvious and emerges almost by default as other characters fall away.This is a difficult book with a cast of hundreds, multiple story lines and themes jostling for attention. All with lengthy asides drawing on literature, poetry, political invective and spiritualism. And there are whole sections that are so esoteric they are almost unintelligible. And the Tilo and Anjum sections of the novel never integrate. They don’t even try to integrate. It is as though multiple sections of various incomplete novels have been gathered and bound together.At a conceptual level, it conveys the chaos of India. Individual scenes are very evocative – whether that is in a bustling market, a protest outside Jantar Mantar or in a cinema turned torture centre in Srinigar. But as a story telling exercise it just doesn’t work. There is little plot and negligible character development. It feels like a series of scenes created and loosely linked to illustrate political points. That’s something that might work in a shorter work, but after so much of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it has long outstayed its welcome.Nevertheless, the book clearly has something. Normally a work this disjointed would have been abandoned relatively early in the piece. But the more lucid pieces do command the attention and the novel does create a level of intrigue to see where it all might be heading. ***00
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