American Literature

4321 by Paul Auster

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4321

The Great American Novel, but not as you know it

4321 by Paul Auster is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.

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Cassandra at the Wedding

An intense psychological drama

Cassandra and Judith Edwards are identical twins. Both brilliant and beautiful; one happily engaged to be married, the other severely depressed. This 1960s psychological drama is an intense read that will bring you into the psyche of both protagonists and show the devastating effects of depression not only on the depressed, but also those around. Brace yourself for something much darker and a great deal more profound than the title suggests.

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Cannery Row

A little book to make you happy

I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.

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I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories

‘A basket of many coloured skies’

This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

A Tsarist Count surviving in revolutionary Russia

It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.

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The Sellout

Promising Booker Prize winner stalls

Yes, the Booker Prize winning The Sellout is a funny book, a book that makes you laugh (sometimes guiltily), a stinging satire devoid of political correctness that goes to the heart of America’s race relation problems. Sadly, it’s also a novel that somehow lacks direction; that appears to go nowhere, in which the author occasionally seems to revel in his own jokes. It’s packed with cultural references that I struggled to understand and I suspect I’m not the only one. For the last reason alone, it’s a puzzling choice as the first American winner of the British based Booker Prize since their rules were changed to include American books a few years ago.

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The Underground Railroad

American slavery with a twist – one of my best reads this year

At the beginning, The Underground Railroad feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.

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A Little Life

A profoundly moving novel about friendship in the twenty-first century

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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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A Hologram For The King

The perfect beach read

I’m discovering I have a soft spot for Dave Eggers and his ingenious way of writing about modern life. I very much enjoyed The Circle (Eggers’ satire on our obsession with technology and connectivity) and A Hologram for The King, set in the ghostly King Abdullah Economic City in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, is just as good. A delightful, light and funny read to pack on your holiday. Can’t wait for his new book Heroes of the Frontier which comes out in July!

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