Little Eyes is an odd little book. There's a new craze - kentukis - little computerised pets that are controlled by an unknown stranger, potentially anywhere in the world. The kentukis have cameras in their eyes and microphones in their ears. Kentukis are expensive, regardless of whether you are the keeper or the remote dweller. You sign up, switch them on and get matched up with a one time only connection to the random dweller. If the kentuki runs out of charge, the connection is irrevocably lost.
The novel is basically a collection of short stories - some of which are recurring and some are short one-offs. We come to each situation from the point of view either of a keeper or a dweller, then we may (or may not) get to know more about the other partner in the relationship. The kentukis witness intimate moments, moments of crisis, crimes and boredom. And the built in peril of needing to return to the charging mat is exploited to the maximum, over and over again.
The stories unfold all over the globe; they explore the limits of the concept in different ways. But the stories are really not that engrossing. The characters don't develop much, there is no overarching quest, there is no connection between stories. There are occasional moments of suspense, at which point the narrative chops away to another story. The momentum is lost.
The basic concept also never really convinces. Why would someone want to open their lives to someone they never know? Why would someone want to spend hours watching people watching TV? How do the numbers of dwellers and keepers match so perfectly? Why would anyone be so invested in something that typically lasts only a few days?
The idea must be worth something, and there is some entertainment in some of the stories. But there is something missing. The analogies to social media and privacy concerns are not fully explored. There just isn't enough to carry the idea, good though it might be. Perhaps a generous three stars for the concept, but it would be nice to see an idea carried through a real novel.
Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic.
The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else.
On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read.
review of Mirror Shoulder Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra.
The novel starts with Sonja, the main character having a driving lesson (from where they get the title of the novel from). Sonja is in her 40s, single and works translating the crime novels of a Swedish writer in the ilk of Steig Larsson, Gosta Svennson. he novel is told both in the present and look back at the past in rural Jutland, a past that no longer exists as the family land has been bought up by the local pig farmer, a guy with an unflattering nickname that I can not recall (sorry)
Sonja really doesn't like her job and particularly with the descriptions she has to go through in the task of translating Gosta's works into Danish. There seems to be a bit of a dislike with the obsession to the Nordic crime thrillers genre (something I can relate to, more so in terms of TV than with books as with books I do a good job avoiding them).
She also doesn't like her driving instructor, Jytte (the scene at the start I found very funny) who doesn't let her shift gears herself and her relationship with her sister is not good. Her sister's husband runs defense whenever she phones them and they barely talk except by accident. Her relationship with her masseuse sees her take a trip with her to do some meditative hiking but Sonya would as the blurb reads prefer to eat cake than hike meditatively. Can't blame her, really. She can't talk to her father as her father's work has damaged his ears.
Despite all these things that she doesn't like, I did like the character of Sonya, she is engaging and indeed very likeable. There isn't a proper story but more a series of events, Nors writing though is excellent and Hoekstra adeptly puts it to English to make a humourous novel. Obserrvant and funny, I really enjoyed this book
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So this will be announced on wednesday next.
the shortlist is
Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell (US), Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions) - Review David Grossman (Israel), Jessica Cohen (US), A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape) Review Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (UK), Don Shaw (UK), The Unseen (Maclehose) Review Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Misha Hoekstra (US), Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Pushkin Press) Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange (UK), Judas (Chatto & Windus) Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell (US), Fever Dream (Oneworld) Review
So I've read four of them (Roy Jacobsen before the longlist, David Grossman while the longlist was announced and then the other two as a result of the longlist.
Overall my favourite of the four is Roy Jacobsen's The Unseen. This for me was a superb novel. This was a tender yet humourous story of family life on a remote island of Barroy off the coast of Norway.
David Grossman's novel is about a comedia doing a stand up show where he invited a childhood friend, now retired as a judge to observe the show. It is from the friend's point of view. Another novel I liked, though not as good as Jacobsen
Both Fever Dream and Compass in terms of both could be describes similarly, an unwell person talking out oud trying to make sense of the situation but this doesn't do justice to either. Schweblin's writing is recalling events of her main character's holiday in the country while on her death bed, Enard's book is less novelistic than the others and works more as thoughts to be bridged together.
Oh I liked them all in varying amounts but as I said in the review of Compass, I hope this doesn't win because it is more difficult read and more off putting to readers, I found it at times to be a difficult read, it is a book that is between good and very good.
I haven't read either Nors or Oz so those are the two most likely winners
review of A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.
This novel is about a comedian and begins by him coming out on stage to do a show. But it is not a comedy. The comedian is Dovaleh G. and at his request, a guy he took a mathematics class has been summoned by Dovaleh to attend and make any notes or thoughts he may have on Dovaleh G.'s performance tonight. The narrator coping with his own lost and his early retirement from district court judge is hesitant at first, they have not seen each other for over 40 years and he needless to say is hesitant (is there a stronger word than hesitant. if so, this word should replace hesitant) but eventually he agrees to attend and during the novel, there are moments early on where he wants to sneak out very early as this is not really.
Also in attendence at the same show is a woman from the same neighbourhood as Dovaleh G. The woman seems to have a little bit of a learning difficulty.
Beneath the comedic facade of Dovaleh, there is the human side to it all and that it what takes over the novel. The novel I feel is one of loss and connection.
The night does not transpire as anyone expects, much like the novel from the opening start. Later on it shows a lot of tenderness, the start is difficult because of the pagentry of a stand up show but I found it thoroughly worthwhile and thought this was an excellent novel.
* * * * *