Snap Judgements

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The Loney

Mysterious winner of The Costa Book of the Year 2016

Praised by the likes of Stephen King and sporting one of the best covers I’ve seen for ages, this award-winning book has all the ingredients for a creepy, atmospheric, wintry read. A desolate stretch of English coastline, a gloomy old house, apocalyptic weather, evangelical practices, pagan rites, and a cast of eccentric characters. The story follows events one Easter in the 1970s as a group of evangelical Catholics take a mute boy to be ‘cured’ at a holy shrine. The writing is evocative and Michael Hurley certainly knows his Catechism, with biblical quotes lending a reassuring authority to the narrative. He sets up a series of intriguing mysteries – why did Father Bernard lose his faith? How did the old lady regain her sight? What happened to the baby? What are the dodgy men up to? Why does the younger brother feel the need to record what happened before it is too late? The themes are worth exploring too: witchcraft/nature vs scripture/civilisation; the innocence or otherwise of childhood vs the so-called wisdom of adulthood.

Disappointingly, the book meanders around these themes and never quite knows where it is going; the Gothic tropes, so crammed in the narrative, can hardly breathe; there are too many balls in the air; too many loose ends left untied and – worst of all – the final long-awaited denouement is unconvincing and baffling. The main mystery is why this book ever won the Costa Book of the Year.

The Loney is published by John Murray, 368 pages.

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Heroes of the Frontier

Eggers' Alaskan adventure fails to excite

What a disappointment! I usually devour Dave Eggers’ books, but this story about a woman running away to Alaska with her two young kids in an RV was just plain lifeless and boring, with a plot seemingly going nowhere. I forced myself to read 80 pages, didn’t laugh once and simply gave up. Read Dave Eggers’ The Circle or A Hologram for the King instead.

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers is published by Hamish Hamilton, 400 pages.

 

 

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Rush Oh!

Tender and Humourous Coming of Age in 19th C Australian Whaling community

A fascinating, partly true, tale of the tenuous relationship between a whaling community and the killer whales that help them catch their prey, set within hardships of a sparse whaling season in Australia in 1908.

Combining fact with fiction, Barrett tells the tale through the naïve and earnest Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of the Headsman, whose humorous and surprisingly self-reflective voice guides us through this unknown world as she stumbles through adolescence, crush(es), hardship and pain. There are no attempts to give ready answers to life, and even the history of some of the characters (and the future of others beyond the year of 1908) are left open, giving the the reader much to mull over.

An unusual and endearing book: simultaneously full of a quiet suffering, hopeful yearnings, and indefatigable courage.

Rush Oh! is published by Virago, 368 pages. 

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The Book of Tea

The Art of Life

Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life.

This is not just a book about tea. It is an exceptional book about life, philosophy and beyond. Japanese philosopher and historian Kakuzo Okakura initially wrote the book 110 years ago, aiming to dispel the Western myths of Japanese barbarianism. He recalls the origins of tea, its philosophical ties to Zen and Taoism and the nuances of tea as an allegory for a philosophy of life. A unique book full of a wit and sagacity that makes it impossible to ignore and one of my favourite discoveries this year.

The Book of Tea is published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 54 pages.

 

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The Course of Love

Seasoned Sequel to The Romantic Movement

This is a mature love story. It charts the course of the love between a couple from mixed backgrounds, from their first meeting to post-children. Where it is thin on plot, it is jam-packed with insightful nuggets and, though not yet a guide to marriage, something each married couple should read to better remember the consideration due their partner. While the narrator’s interruptions admittedly sometimes feel slightly patronising and somewhat didactical, they well suit de Botton’s style of musings and I felt they worked within the framework of this pseudo-novel.

It’s been a long time since I read Alain de Botton’s The Romantic Movement, first published in 1994, but I remember being irritated by its tone and disappointed by its attempts at philosophical conclusions. But that was almost 20 years ago and The Course of Love reflects both his personal and intellectual growth with a book that I would recommend.

The Course of Love is published by Hamish Hamilton, 240 pages.

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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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At the Edge of the Orchard

Rushed plot, improbable ending

This is Tracy Chevalier’s eighth novel and I’ve been a huge fan of her work since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1999. Sadly, At the Edge of the Orchard left me disappointed. The subject matter, as always with Chevalier, was meticulously researched and vividly portrayed, but the plot felt rather jumbled together, the ending somewhat improbable.

Set in 1838, James and Sadie Goodenough are pioneers trying to carve out a life in the inhospitable, stagnant swamplands of northwest Ohio. They and their 5 children work relentlessly planting apple trees in order to stake their claim on the land. We follow the family’s bleak journey full of horrific struggles over the next fifteen years.

The characters are sharply drawn and compelling with clear, individual voices and I loved the fact I was introduced to a subject and place I knew nothing about. Chevalier describes the sequoia trees and endless landscapes with rich intensity. But the plot seemed bumpy, rushed and overly melodramatic, the ending predictable and disappointing. However, Chevalier’s ability to evoke a period in history and take you to that very place is unsurpassed. The novel left me wanting to learn how to graft apple trees and experience the taste of a sweet Golden Pippin.

At the Edge of the Orchard is published by The Borough Press – HarperCollins, 300 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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My Name is Lucy Barton

Bland New York Times Bestseller

Hmm…not sure about this one. This best-seller (number one on the New York Times list) seemed somewhat tepid to me. My Name is Lucy Barton takes place in a hospital bedroom where our narrator, Lucy, receives a surprise visit from her estranged mother. Not much is said between mother and daughter, in fact, this novel is more about what isn’t said, but we do gather that Lucy has had a rough childhood, growing up in extreme poverty with distant and abusive parents. Despite it’s distressing themes, the characters remained somewhat lifeless, in particular, I struggled to be convinced by the tension between mother and daughter. For me, the best parts were the flashbacks to Lucy’s childhood and the descriptions of poverty and the stigma attached to it, but there weren’t enough of them. I also missed some more context, a better understanding of Lucy’s journey and of her husband who, like a lot of other characters, in this novel remains an enigma.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin, 196 pages.

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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.