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A Fool, Free

A journey into the mind of a schizophrenic

A Fool, Free can best be described as a A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for schizophrenia. It is the extraordinary story (allegedly fiction, but suspiciously similar to the authors own life) of Swedish/Norwegian Eli, a filmmaker and author, as she battles the many personas inhabiting her mind, medication (too much or too little) and nurses and doctors with a varying degree of understanding of how best to treat her. Four male voices, Espen, Emil, Prince Eugen and the rebellious Erik, the instigator of Eli’s most violent outbursts, controls Eli’s life. She wants to go through a sex change but doesn’t know which sex to choose. She oscillates from being forcibly hospitalised and heavily medicated to being a productive and successful filmmaker and author. A hugely enlightening look at a mental illness shrouded in myths and fear and probably as close as you’ll ever get in appreciating what goes on in the mind of a schizophrenic.

A Fool, Free by Beate Grimsrud is published by Head of Zeus, 496 pages.

 

 

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Hygiene and the Assassin

Vitriolic Misanthrope bested by Female Journalist

Although first published in 1992, this English translation was only published 18 years later. It was worth the wait. Such a wonderfully translated piece, it zings and bounces with satisfying accuracy, which alone makes this book a ‘must read’. It centres primarily around an interview of the cantankerous and pernicious Nobel Laureate, Prétextat Tach, by the female journalist, Nina. After a slew of failed (male) attempts, Nina manages to match this obese and postulating intellectual in a war of thought and a battle of rhetoric. I found the philosophising duel of wits wonderfully unique, immensely clever, and absurdly humorous. Although I was a tad lukewarm about the ending, the first half is worth reading twice over and I would urge it on anyone looking for a light, funny, intelligent read.

Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb is published by Europa Editions and translated by Alison Anderson, 167 pages.

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The Sympathizer

Bitingly satirical portrait of post-Vietnam America

Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t shy away from the big issues in this Pulitzer Prize winning book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rarely have American double standards, displacement, issues of identity and cultural imperialism made me laugh so much. The Sympathizer (the author’s first!) is not a novel without flaws but Nguyen’s excellent writing, original angle and biting satire make up for the shortcomings.

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Finding Grace in Unlikely Places

A light and enjoyable novel following 10 year old Grace Elizabeth through the neighbourhood’s secrets, enlightenment, an other revelations. Some nimble nuggets of insight into the prejudices and solidarity within a 70s suburban street while she perseveres on her ‘search for Jesus’. Flawed, but certainly cleverer than it seems at first glance.

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The Vegetarian

Weird and wonderful

‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.’ Thus starts the most unusual book I’ve read in a while, and stranger it gets. The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, is the tragic story of Yeong-hye, told by her husband, the cold Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful, manipulative artist and her selfless sister, In-hye.

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Les Blancs

Electrifying play about Africa, racism and white oppression

A gripping, encompassing, little known play ‘about Africa’. Set amongst a violent uprising and liberation of Africans (in fictional Zatembe), still in the throes of casting off the shackles of white rule, Hansberry’s drama wields a extensive cast of characters from each sphere of the debate, confronting self awareness (or indeed lack thereof), culpability, guilt, anger, retribution and the cost of real freedom. Tightly written and constructed, it examines the meaning of sacrifice, guilt, justification and retribution; definitions of race and racism, of well-intentioned but romanticised notions of empowerment and freedom; and the inevitability and immutability of revolt. All of which she manages to weave with consummate skill into a clattering finale – a phenomenal voice that should be heard more often, even today.

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102 English Things to Do

How to be English

To be enjoyed by English, Brits and non-Brits alike. This amusing collection of observations is part humorous analysis of being English (listen to the shipping forecast, be self-deprecating/ironic/ apologetic); part practical advice (decipher: ‘AONB’, cockney, ‘tea’, ‘be disgusted, Tunbridge wells’, and ‘Lord Lucan’); travel guide (browse Charing Cross road, experience Glynebourne/ Coronation Street/Notting Hill Carnival) and endearingly, proudly English (recite/sing alternatingly Invictus/ Jerusalem/be eccentric). Makes a lovely little gift too.

102 English Things to Do by Alex Quick is published by Old Street Publishing, 226 pages.

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Mend the Living (The Heart)

A question of life and death

I was left speechless by this astounding novel, the story of a young man’s death and the dilemmas around organ donation. It reads like a thriller and had me pinned to the chair. Maylis de Kerangal fast-paced prose is intense and unusual, and, admittedly, took a few pages getting used to, but once you find the rhythm of her writing you’ll be unable to stop. An absolute must-read!

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The Prophets of Eternal Fjord

Compulsively readable novel about arctic hell hole

If you’re at all disgusted by bodily fluids, don’t even think about reading this book. If you’re not, prepare yourself for a firework of a novel by a master storyteller set in a part of the world which I’m willing to bet you’ve never read anything about before. Kim Leine’s novel The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, set in Greenland during Danish colonial rule, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013 and is finally out in English.

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The End of Days

Too sad for words

This beautifully written, prize-winning novel should come with a warning: NOT SUITABLE IF FEELING LOW

It’s the story of a girl born in Austria-Hungary at the start of the 20th century and her five possible alternative lives. It’s structure is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but, I think, more elegantly executed. The wars, famines and conflicts that dominated Central European history in the early part of the last century shape her different destinies and, as you’ve probably guessed, they are rarely happy ones. Suicides, famine, war – you name it. It’s a seriously depressing book that I found hard to enjoy (I can usually stomach sad books). That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s exquisitely written with an interesting premise – how coincidences shape our lives. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year, a prize I rate highly. Still tempted… just don’t say I didn’t warn you.