Tuesday, 29 August 2023

Book Review: Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang

Babel: An Arcane History Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author has created a world that is immediately recognizably set in history yet is has a fantastical thread running through it. It feels a bit like a modern day Harry Potter meets His Dark Materials with its Institute of Translators in Oxford, its magical multilingual runes written on silver to power a steampunk world, all overlaid with imperial colonialism, systemic racism and exploitation overtones of the East India Company's ruthless commerce. An author to watch and read more of.

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Saturday, 17 June 2023

Book Review: Greek Lessons By Han Kang tarnslated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won

Greek Lessons Greek Lessons by Han Kang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not as accessible as her The Vegetarian, but a wonderful story of a going blind man and a non speaking woman and certainly worth a read. The audio really helps with two voices, I suspect a text only read might prove harder to follow. The author is an amazingly innovative writer.

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Book Review: The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami , translated by Allison Markin Powell

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For me this novel was not as good as Strange Weather in Tokyo but I still enjoyed the read. Like Strange Weather it address the difficulties of modern relationships. 10 women give their story of their relationship with Nishino at different stages of his life. These are not rendered chronologically . We never really hear him, his voice and in many ways we and many /all? of the women never really knew him , nor understood him. They all break away from him even though he would appear to be a 'catch'. They say he doesn't want commitment, but perhaps it is the women who are commitment phobes?, some are only after sex, some are not really interested in Nishino the person, but he does leave his mark on them all.
I like Kawakami's writing style, sparse, simple, deep, thought provoking. Her stories stay with me.
Another of her short story collections is appearing in translation later this year Dragon Palace

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Saturday, 27 May 2023

Review: Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English

Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English by unknown author
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

According to the book the author is S K Sahota.
I borrowed this from my local library. I'm learning hindi and this is a basic level reader, with parallel or triple way text - Devanagari, phonetic transliteration and English. Simple story about a girl and her family but is has good repetition of some words, short comprehensible sentences for a beginner. and a good range of vocabulary for a beginners starting to read book. No complex conjuncts, no complex grammatical construction.

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Review: Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English

Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English Mona: Let's Learn and Read: Hindi-English by unknown author
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

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Saturday, 18 March 2023

Audio Book Review: The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer, translated by Howard Curtis, narrated by Greg Lockett, Stephanie Dufrense, Todd Kramer.

I'm on a roll. This is the second book I have read by this author. I now realise I'm reading them in the reverse order to which he wrote them, but not that the books are in any way connected. The Enigma of Room 622 and The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer are both thoroughly engaging thrillers.

This one is set in the USA, in the Hamptons and is a detective driven crime novel. Once again Dicker has the reader unwrapping the onion, layer by layer as she encounters all his twists and revelations in this compelling read. Once again I couldn't put it down. Once again Dicker plays with timelines.

Here we have the sleepy resort town of Orfea in 1994 and in 2014. In 2014 amateur actors are putting on the lead play in the town's literary festival. In 1994 during its opening festival the town mayor, wife, his son, and a jogger are gunned down during the first play. Dicker twists with the play on parallels, dipping back and forth between the two time periods. His back stories to his character are well fleshed out creating people who would come alive on any screen dramatisation. The audio version I listened to likewise had a suit of narrators - Greg Lockett, Stephanie Dufrense, Todd Kramer.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Book Review: The Enigma of Room 622 by Joël Dicker, Translated by The Enigma of Room 622 narrated by Chris Harper

The Enigma of Room 622

The Enigma of Room 622 by Joël Dicker
Translated by Robert Bononno
Narrated by Chris Harper 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just the tonic! I needed a riveting, engaging book. This is a murder mystery written within the framing story of a writer writing a novel about solving an unsolved murder mystery whilst coping with having been left by his girlfriend. The murder is solved by unwrapping the case as if a writer was about to write a book about it, as each layer is unwrapped the clues are there to help the reader, but of course the plot seems to twist and turn. 

I will not say anything about the plot twists as that would absolutely spoil the book. Suffice to say the way the book is written swings back and back quite freely on different timelines within the story and I now some folks don't like that but it didn't cause any issue for me keeping up with when we were. I read this almost 600 pg book in 4 sittings, and would have done it in 3 if I'd been more organized about other things. 

I'd never come across this author before I read this review in World Literature Today (WLT). Its very pleasingly narration meant I enjoyed the book so much I've ordered two of his others books from my local library The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair and The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer

Monday, 6 March 2023

Book Review: Ghost Music by An Yu, narrated by Vera Chok

Ghost Music

Ghost Music by An Yu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really had no idea what to expect when I started this book as I knew nothing about it or its author, and only had a passing recommendation from someone I only recently met. But it was unputdownable.

It is a first person narrative by a young married childless woman piano teacher, Song Yan, living in Beijing. Her mother in law comes to live with them. She had trained as a concert pianist but had chosen married life. But that is not going well and she realises she doesn't really know her husband at all when she discovers first that he had a sister. Other revelations follow. The strains of her marriage and the strains of living with one's mother in law take their toll. She receives a series of mysterious and unexpected deliveries of Yunaan mushrooms, her husband and mother in law's province. Although addressed to someone else, these cannot be returned as there is no return address. Her mother in law and her set about cooking the mushrooms that continue to arrive each week. Then she receives a letter from Bai Yu, her father's favourite concert pianist who walked away from his career and disappeared years ago. That letter ignites her and she goes to its address, one of the old courtyard hutongs in the back alleys of old Beijing.

These are the events around which this beautifully written and told story is crafted. How that is done is nothing short of extraordinary. With all the hallucinogenic effect of mushrooms they percolate into her dreams, she sees then in cupboards, growing from floorboards, in her walls and there is news that her husband's home town is covered in an orange dust. The effect is magical, making this anything but a domestic drama novel. But this is NOT magical realism. For me it is far more reminiscent of the best ghost stories ( The Turn of the Screw, The Others https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0230600/, The Orphanage https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0464141) but with shades of Nostalgia https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086022 as if they had been blended by Tarkovsky in his own special way he had with colour, music and movement.

Throughout the book music plays a central role - her relations with it, with the piano, with the children she teaches, and at perhaps the most intimate of ways the untouching shadow-playing with Bai Yu. I'm no musician but I am sure someone will write about the choice of the pieces that are in this book. Debussey's Reverie is the main one and I did look it up - "Reverie is not full of excitement and explosions of colour...but..is calm, peaceful and priorities atmosphere and reaching a dream like state. Often used for mindfulness and meditation" quote from https://classicalexburns.com/2022/08/... . That choice can be no accident. It totally fits. 

This book HAS to be made into a movie and scored appropriately. But making a movie of this will take a deft hand, as so much is in what is not said, in the gaps between the notes, those moments which are 'more resonant than the mere absence of sound' . And it is here that this novel indicates to me a great writing talent. It handles these equivalent to off camera moments well, it handles silences well, by using the ghostly hallucinations to explore the understanding, coming to terms with and resolution of the ordinary everyday strains and constraints of life and marriage. 

Audio version is beautifully narrated by Vera Chok who has also narrated An Yu's only other novel Braised Pork

I really urge you to read this book.

Book Review: Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark , narrated by Nadia May

Loitering with Intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My in person book group mentioned that they had never read any Muriel Spark, not even The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! So we, of course, had to rectify this. As a fellow Scot I recall she was on my secondary school reading list over 50 years ago (TPMJB and The Ballad of Peckham Rye) and the movie version with the marvelous Maggie Smith came out around then as well. I suppose the success of the movie may have been the reason why many people had not read the book. Over the years I have at least read The Abbess of Crewe, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat but none of her later ones . I also recall watching a documentary in praise of her by Ian Rankin, sadly I've not found this available in full online. But there is a BBC Interview with her available of Youtube ; another BBC celebration of her by Kirsty Wark and the National Library of Scotland has her Archives .

Loitering with intent was a fast and very enjoyable read. A retrospective first person narrative of a writer, Fleur Talbot recalls the time she spent of her first novel and her job with the mysterious Autobiographical Association and its founder and leader Sir Quentin Oliver in the period 1949-50. This is a self help group therapy club for upper class misfits led by a power maniac. When does live and literature become one? Fleur notices that her novel seems to be foretelling what is happening in real life. Then the only typescript of her novel is stolen.

The novel is high melodrama. It is also a farce worthy of Brian Rix, Alistair Sim and Alec Guinness. I loved the character of aging Lady Edwina, Sir Quentin's 'mummy', whose 'fluvative percipitations' disrupts everything, everywhere. If you read it will sound so outdated nowadays, but go with the flow and I do not think you will be disappointed. The writing will sweep you along. Not surprisingly it was shortlisted in for the Booker in 1981, along with Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers (one of my 5* for both movie and reads) the year Salman Rushdie won with Midnight's Children. The Audio verison is narrated by Nadia May. A thoroughly enjoyable read

Monday, 20 February 2023

Book Review: Monsieur Linh and His Child, translated by Euan Cameron

145 pages (in my library's large print edition) of absolute magic. This story will make you cry whilst filling you with hope and joy. Two middle aged men meet on a park bench. The two men do not share a language but they share so much. One is a native of the western country, presumably France, where they meet, he is a widower still grieving the loss of his wife. The other appears to be much older, life-ravaged and is also grieving. His is the loss of his wife years ago, his son and daughter in law and all their small village of 12 families by war. His past is now only memories, lost smells, one faded photo of him and his wife and the babe in his arms. They friendship blossoms over cigarettes and talking even though neither understands the others words they understand the sentiments. Monsieur Bark mistakes the other's good day greeting of Tao-lai as his name and the child's Sang diu as Sans Dieu. This mistake is not a problem until it is.

This is the first work I've read by Philippe Claudel and I found it to be a well crafted, hugely moving, short read.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Book Review: Accabadora by Michela Murgia, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Accabadora Accabadora by Michela Murgia
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I was first attracted to this book by its title, a word I did not know.

Bonari Urrai is a childless widow in 1950s Sardinia who adopts Maria Listru when her mother can no longer afford to raise her. Bonari is a seamstress who not only physically but metaphorically 'good at getting the measure' of people. She gives Maria a good home, an education but she has a secret. That secret lies in the meaning of the title word which I am not going to spoil here.

The book flows well in English, the style reminded me of the great Latin American writers and has won Italian Literature prizes. Her translator is Silvester Mazzarella who also translates Swedish works by Tove Jansson. It is a shame not more of Murgia's work has been translated

This book impressed me. A short book 204 pages in English, that I could not put down. Her characters of Bonari and Maria are well done, there is a good level of texture in the story, a sense of time and of the small rural community in which most of the storyline takes place. A recommended afternoon read.

Friday, 27 January 2023

Book Review: And the Wind Sees All by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, Björg Árnadóttir (translator), Shai Sendik (Translator)

And the Wind Sees All And the Wind Sees All by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read that the title of the English translation has been changed from the original Icelandic The Waltz of the Valeyri which for me would have described this book better. The Valeyri village choir will perform this evening in the village hall, Currently Kata is cycling there and all around her people are preparing and reading themselves for the evenings performance. Everyone different, everyone's life different, everyone with their own story. And each is told for the reader. In many ways the reader feels like a voyeur, eves dropping into each home with each turn of Kata's cycles wheels.

I particularly liked Sveni's story entitled Off sick. He lives with Grimur his "one eyed , yellow striped cat" who is "so old that all you can hear is an occasional creak", rather than a sympathetic purr. And Sveni needs his cat and his telephone call to his sister on days when he goes on a bender and the past comes back to haunt him. I thought this story was really well told - a whole life and its effects in 11 pages - that takes some writing skill. The way Kata's own story is just dropped into the book, as if in passing conversation, but it cuts like a knife.

Later there is a passage which describes the proliferation of houses that has come as the village has expanded beyond the traditional homes - "some of them are comically lopsided but inspired by beautiful thoughts; others are beautiful because of their history. Some or ugly because oft heir lack of maintenance testifies to sloth and apathy; and some are ugly because of something that has happened there. Some of them have been renovated by younger generation, others are derelict or have been demolished and replaced with box-like non-houses." When I read this it seemed to sum up the book for me, as if the passage referred not to houses but to the village's residents. Happy moments,sad moments, dark secrets kept, secrets told, families gone, love stories, wistful memories, and horrors that still haunt the derelict souls they created.

Peirene Press have definitely found a niche in the market with their short, under 200 page, novels in translation, and if you want to try them out and perhaps explore something other than Nordic Noir thrillers then this one may well be a good one to start with. Take a 'Waltz with the Valyeri' and see a whole world of life experiences. I just wish they'd do audiobooks!

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Book Review: Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Girl Meets Boy

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another short novel between longer reads - at 164 pages it can be read in 1-2 sittings. I loved the Ali Smith's use of language, how she seamlessly slipped in words and phrases from old Scots songs, poems and everyday life bringing back memories of my youth. It is a reworking of Ovid but also uses other myths/legends/stories such as Burning Lily Lenton to tackles issues family, gender, commercial values, human rights and needs, eco-wars. Well crafted, intelligent, witty, corny in the right places - Eau Caledonia :) - and with a Shakespearean ending . Loved it.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Book Review: The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth

The Prague Orgy The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I clearly am having a spell of Kafka themed reading (see also my review of Ian McEwan's The Cockroach

This is a short book in Philip Roth's Zuckerman series sees his novelist Nathan Zuckerman off to Prague to recover a handwritten unpublished Yiddish manuscript of stories by the dead father of an exiled writer. Set in the time of the Soviet occupation this is part adventure yarn, part serious commentary on writing and politics. I liked this better than McEwan's Brexit fiasco.

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Book Review: The Cockroach By Ian McEwan, narrated by Bill Nighy

The Cockroach

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I started reading this novella from Ian McEwan I was reminded of the classic The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, but very quickly the notion of a homage was dispelled and we are into the realm of political satire. 

****SPOLIER ALERT****Jim Sams, UK PM has been transformed into a cockroach yet, but he is still PM, in modern day Britain but not quite as we know it, although everything sounds familiar. Reversalism rules, reverse-flow economics is the norm and the traditional money markets preferred by the 'Clockwisers' are no longer in power, now people have to shop to afford to buy their jobs. The previous PM in order to placate the Reversalist wing of the Tory Party had called a Referendum on reversing the money flow. The old and the poor swayed the vote and faced with "Turn the Money Around" upswell he 'resigned immediately and was never heard of again' .

James Sams a clockwiser had emerged as a compromise candidate now had to guide a Reversalist economy in a Clockwise world. ' we will deliver Reversalism for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our great country....by 2050... the UK will be the greatest and most prosperous economy in Europe....we will move swiftly to accelerate and extend our trade deals beyond St Kitts and Nevis.... '
Any Brit will hear resounding in her ears echoes of the misjudged Cameron EU Referendum .

James wrestles with his first Tweets, tries to get the US President to adopt Reversalism, there's a fatal fishing dispute with the French, a leak and a Foreign Secretary called Benedict that needs dealing with. A false story is planted by a female colleague with the media to discredit and shame the Foreign Secretary who then has to resign and goes off to lead the rebels.

With the ultimate passing of the Reversalism Bill, James in his speech says "we have come to know the preconditions for such human ruin. War and global warming certainly and, in peacetime, immoveable hierarchies, concentrations of wealth, deep superstition, rumour, division, distrust of science, of intellect, of strangers and of social cooperation."

One can't but feel McEwan enjoyed writing this book, and from a reader's perspective it is short, speedy read which occasional bring sly smiles to one's face, but is it a great piece of creative writing?, I felt McEwan struggled to maintain his PM as cockroach character and Sams reverted to the PM as human in this reader's mind for large parts of this book. Maybe it is a book that inevitably had to be written. Could it have been written with the same of better effect without the cockroach transformation? That I feel that could have been a better book. Sadly, not one of McEwan's better books - for me an interesting idea that didn't quite work.

I listened to the audio version admirably read by Bill Nighy.

Saturday, 7 January 2023

Book Review: Interior Chinatown by Charles Wu

Interior Chinatown

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

 "All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages....."
                                from As You Like It by William Shakespeare

I think this completely sums up this book. Reading Charles Yu highly experimental fiction mean you step into a world where everyone is an actor and the world itself is the production set. Roles are based on race, age and gender. Everyone is limited Willis Wu dreams of eventually progressing from Generic Asian Guy to Kung Fu Guy. Written as a script, laid out as such on the page this is a novel novel. This is a satirical sociopolitical commentary on the effects of the various political Acts restricting Asians in America through the 1800 to recent times. Well worth a read, it won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

AudioBook Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before Christmas I attended a short online course at City Lit, London on Epistolary novels. One of the extracts the tutor used was from this novel. I'd never heard of it, never heard of the author, never watched all the TV shows she has written (eg Arrested Development). A comic novel about a mad cap family based in Seattle, father works at Microsoft, mum a washed up architect frustrated by the parochrial housewives, mothers and assorted figures trying to get her to be part of the community at Galler Street School where her only child, gifted daughter Bea goes to school. Sitting somewhere on the spectrum , Bea has written up the various communiques to and from her mother, antagonistic neighbour Audrey in a fight over brambles and a run over foot, her remote based PA Manjula in India, another Galler Street parent Soo-lin who becomes her husband's admin, the schoolteacher. These open the book. As I read the first few pages I was pleasantly surprised by the flow, indeed the speed of the text, it flew off the page. It is most definitely not a book I would normally have picked up but I borrowed it from our library and wow! One of the best reads in a long time. Not a great book, but a superb read. The audible narration by Kathleen Wilhoite is 5*, she nailed it, her narration captures the character of Bea. Check out her interview where she talk about what it is like to record an audiobook. I was amazed this was her first one, she had met Maria Semple at writing class!
If you want a great read to become immersed in, to laugh, smile and giggle at and lift the spirits during a winter's day as grey as Seattle, then pick up this book now!

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