Category Archives: Fiction

Book reviews of the fiction I read

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

This was one of the books that was recommended to me at the start of the year as one to challenge my view. It does seem, though, that it was merely a recommendation from a friend of the author who was just trying to boost sales by 1. But I got it anyway.

Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Drori.

The story centres on Etsy. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Etsy has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Etsy and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of clich√©. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.

Advertisements

Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

After having finished Theology of Hope, I was in dire need of a light read. Wodehouse is one of those writers that almost everyone has heard of, quite a few have read and who garners a loyal following. Yet I have, thus far in 31+ years on this planet, never before read any of his works. It seemed only right to start at the beginning, only there is some ambiguity over precisely where to start, for the characters of Jeeves & Wooster made some early appearances in Wodehouse’s short stories, but I was hoping to read a novel. So it seemed that Thank You, Jeeves was the appropriate place to start.

One of the odd things about Wodehouse is that even if you haven’t read him, you are likely to have heard of Jeeves & Wooster or even seen a few episodes of the television programme that was made starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles. So I certainly came to the book with those two forming my mental image, as the book opens with a duologue between the two.

That particular opening sees Jeeves hand in his notice (that’s hardly a spoiler, it’s the first chapter) over the matter of Wooster playing a banjolele very badly. This has also prompted a number of complaints from Wooster’s neighbours, but being a stubborn old so-and-so, he decides not to abandon the instrument, but instead to abandon his home. The story then transfers to a coastal area, where Jeeves decides to rent a house and obtain the services of a new valet.

From here on, there are a series of farcical episodes that befall Bertie and thwart his every plan. Old friends and old loves bounce around his world (or rather, he bounces around theirs) in a delightfully comic fashion.

A reasonable review cannot pass over one very uncomfortable fact about the book. Written in the 1930s, there are racial epithets used here that were taken as norm, which I am loathed to put into writing myself and, if I were to use them in the workplace, I might well find myself unemployed. But it doesn’t end there. Much of the 2nd half of the book revolves around a running joke of one of the characters “blacking up” and getting into all sorts of scrapes. I strongly doubt that this particular book would get made into a tv programme or film because of this (though I later found out that this episode was adapted for tv as recently as 1991). So if you are thinking of reading it, consider this a due warning, in case you are sensitive to racism.

With that warning aside, one is left trying to read through the book and see what was intended. While it firmly falls into the category of comedy, there is an element here of the Victorian sensation novel. The speed with which events happen, along with the sudden plot turns ensue, result in a story that is really rather fast-paced. The entire action takes place over just a couple of days. It provided me with the light relief I was after and was, all in all, a rather jolly tale.

If the world’s getting you down and you need a bit of gentle escapism, then this wouldn’t be a bad book to go for. Though very different in genre, it sort of reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.¬† I definitely intend to return to Wodehouse later and read some more of his works.

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

This has been by quite some margin the most anticipated book of the year. All over the English-speaking world, people have been busily re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for the release of its follow-up. This particular reader chose not to. I maintained a strong memory of the impression that To Kill A Mockingbird made on me when I read it as part of my English Literature GCSE. I didn’t want to alter that memory, flawed as it may be, but I have been timing my reading carefully so that I would be able to read the sequel as soon as it was released. You may recall I wrote about my hopes and fears about the novel.

So it was that on the day of its publication, Tuesday the 14th of July 2015, that I set off during my lunchbreak to Foyles to pick up a copy. So what did I find?

*spoiler alert – I will be giving some details of the storyline in this review*

Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name. In this recollection, the defendant was said to have had one arm. I don’t recall Tom having one arm in Mockingbird, so maybe one of you can enlighten me on this point.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

I don’t know about other readers, but I could readily identify with the theme of disappointment in one’s parents. I recently sat at endured something of a rant that my father that could only ever be described as homophobic. I disagree with him vehemently on the issue, although he doesn’t know this. I simply bite my tongue. There are times I’ve wanted to scream in his face and tell him how vile I find his hatred. In this book, Jean Louise does my shouting for me.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Listen.

Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.

This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.

Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.

I’ve deliberately kept myself in ignorance whilst reading the book and whilst writing this review as to Vonnegut’s own history, lest that shatter the impression I got from the book, for surely that impression and what truth it conveys is of primary importance, while the rest is background. I can leave that background until after this review is posted online.

Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.

The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.

The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.

The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.

Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

I first heard of Alice Munro when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. So poorly read am I that most winners are, to me, unheard of until they win. Having greatly enjoyed some of the work of previous winners, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Galsworthy, I was looking forward to this collection of short stories.

This is one of Munro’s later works and the opening story gives the impression that it was written with a sense of a retrospective, but told with great gentleness.

The back cover of the book states: “Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters, the twist of fate that leads a person to a new way of thinking or being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.”

Some of the short stories are actually quite long, the 2nd story being some 36 pages. These make them just a little bit too long to do in a single commute (when I do most of my reading). Not wanting to split a story across journeys, I took to reading one per weekend, so it’s taken me some 3 months to get through this book, moving at a relatively slow pace. Because there is no overarching narrative, this has resulted in me getting to look in through a window for a short space of time every Sunday afternoon. I catch a glimpse of what is going and then move on.

For what one is left with is not a memory of each plot, each character, each decision that they make. What one is left with is a feeling.

It is interesting to note that some of the stories were first published in The New Yorker, which also published the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. As I had read that so recently, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between them. For again, none of Munro’s characters stick with you for long after you’ve finished reading the stories. Even as I write this, I cannot think of more than a couple of names and very few of the plotlines. But this does not mean it is bad writing. If anything, it is quite the opposite, because what I have been left with is the impression that the stories have made, their footprints on the sand of my mind. They get you thinking as you read and it is those thoughts that linger with you. So I suspect many a reader will take away from this work something different, something unique to them and how they relate to Munro’s writing.

But in order to take that something away, you must first invest the time to read Munro, and that is something I would encourage you to do. Don’t expect her to blow you away with dazzling imagery or turns of phrase that make the heart ache, but let her abide with you for a season.

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Sometime last year, I can’t remember when, posters appeared all over the London Underground advertising this debut novel by Jessie Burton. The combination of the intriguing title and the eye-catching artwork created a mental image in my head that was highly appealing. So if the person who was responsible for the marketing of the book is reading this, well done. I only bought it, though, when I found myself in the very pokey bookshop of Primrose Hill. By this time, the book had started to win some praise and an award or two.

Set in the Netherlands in the late 17th century, the book gets off to a slightly unexpected start. Our main protagonist is Nella, an 18 year old woman who has recently married a trader roughly twice her age. Yet she seems not to really know him at all. She arrives at his house, greeted by his cold and unfriendly sister, Marin, and the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto. It is a little while before we meet her husband, Johannes, but he remains a constant, yet distant figure throughout the book’s opening.

He attempts to make up for his relative absence by buying Nella a large kind of dollhouse. It is this that provides the impetus for the title of the novel, though it is curiously incidental to the overall plot. It’s something of a McGuffin, where the story would be little impacted if it were omitted. Because of this failure to meet expectations, I couldn’t like the book as much as I had hoped. Yet if one puts aside the missed expectations, then we do get the work of a very good storyteller setting out on the published stage of her writing career.

The real heart of the book consists of the interactions between the main characters, who are all well fleshed out and given their distinctive voices. Often written in dialogue, we see how Nella relates to Johannes, then how she relates to Marin, then how Marin relates to Cornelia, how Cornelia relates to Otto and so on. Through this method of storytelling, we build up the characterisation, while there are events which punctuate these and make for a very well paced novel.

I would warn potential readers that if it had the same kind of certification as a film, it would probably be a 15. There is some rather brutish homophobia as well as one or two gory scenes that are described in lurid detail.

It has also been noted that the book has divided opinion somewhat. I can see why some people may have been disappointed. I think it’s possibly because it’s not in the genre of fiction that people expect. Some have described it as an historical novel. While it’s certainly set in the past, the tone feels distinctly modern. Rather, this is a sensation novel, in the style of the late Victorian period. The closest in terms of the plot structure that I’ve reviewed on this blog before is Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.

So would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good book. Is it deserving of the all the awards and high praise that is garnered? I’m not convinced. If in doubt, though, do read it. There are plenty more ordinary books out there that aren’t half as interesting.

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.

She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.

The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.

It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…