Category Archives: Current Affairs

The Racketeer – John Grisham – 6/10

“One of the few virtues of prison life is the gradual acquisition of patience. Nothing moves at a reasonable pace, and you learn to ignore clocks.”

racketeer

Malcolm Bannister has served 5 years in prison for a crime he got sucked into, and is due to serve another 5. When a federal judge is brutally murdered, and Malcolm knows who did it, he has to work out a way to use that information to his advantage, while staying safe. And a way to exact a little justice of his own.

For the first half of this, I was completely onboard. So far, so Grisham, but very readable, good plot build-up, some nifty legal dealings, a bit of adventure, bad guys appropriately irritated. Then Grisham seemingly goes off-piste for most of the rest of the book, only revealing in the last 10 pages or so how the second half of the book ties back to the first half. Which drove me crazy. I nearly abandoned the book multiple times and it was only encouragement from The Musician that kept me going.

Bannister is a likeable enough character in the standard Grisham mold, but Grisham does much better protagonists. The agents are rendered well enough but nothing memorable. Quinn and Nate are interesting, as is Vanessa, but it feels like Grisham didn’t really want to bother developing any characters other than Bannister because of the backwards plot.

It’s not up there with The Street Lawyer or The Last Juror.

Additional info

Copy bought at JFK airport recently while trying to use up US dollars.  
Publisher: Dell Books, 382 pages (paperback)
Order The Racketeerfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Richard Flanagan, Booker Prize winner, guest review

Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North a few weeks ago. The Book Accumulator read it in April and raved about it then, and I have put below a very brief guest review. I’d better get myself a copy!

I judged it a serious contender for the title of the GAN, the Great Australian novel.  I was surprised after reading the Miles Franklin winner that the Flanagan novel missed out (though All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld was not an unworthy winner of the Miles Franklin).

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), a serious attempt to take the title of the Great Australian Novel, as it comes to slippery grips with big themes of suffering, death, love and loyalty, while also depicting the terrible life of the prisoners on the Burma railway in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Disturbing is the hero’s inability to love, even though he has scores of romantic relationships as well as a family, and even though he as doctor and officer is deeply committed to the soldiers under his care and command in the camp. A book that moves at vastly different speeds, often too tediously in parts which needed editing.

Have you read it? What did you think?

All That I Am – Anna Funder – 6/10

“Hans, who was shy speaking to the English, spoke of them as they fitted his preconceptions: a nation of shopkeepers, tea drinkers, lawn clippers. But I came to see them differently. What had seemed a conformist reticence revealed itself, after a time, to be an inbred, ineffable sense of fair play. They didn’t need as many external rules as we did because they had internalised the standards of decency.”

all that i am

(from the blurb) When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breathtaking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart.

Often a book seems driven by one of three things to me – plot, characters, or beautiful writing. This seemed a half-and-half study of plot and characters. The plot moved at inconsistent speed (and jumped around – but more on that later), but while we stayed in one place and time, particularly in the early 30s in Germany and then in the mid 30s in London, it was well-crafted and progressed. A level of tension is well-maintained without being exhausting. I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all. I was surprised when it came, who it was that was responsible, and the effects.

I already protested about the back-and-forth perspective, the way we flick from Ruth as an old woman, to Ruth as a young woman during the Nazi years, to Ernst Toller at the start of the war, and back again. I still maintain that Ernst’s story served no purpose at all – it was necessary that some of the information about Dora came through him, but that was really it.

Young Ruth was my favourite character (I suspect this is Funder’s intention); gentle and idealistic, committed and loving. I found Dora more difficult; headstrong, impetuous, strangely unconcerned with consequences. Ernst was sanctimonious and selfish, and Hans was strangely nothing. He was inspired and gregarious as a young man, but he petered out into nothingness in a new country. I loved old Ruth’s observations on Bev (her carer) – a little comic relief in the other timeline.

This is such a depressing book. So naturally I read it on holiday in Rome in the sunshine. But still. I can’t decide whether it needed heavier editing, redirecting, or whether I was never going to like something so dark.

One thing this book did teach me was the experience of living in 20s Germany. At school we only heard about the rampant inflation and needing a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread; this book managed to convey the joy and freedom and idealism and optimism of the early 20s. No mean feat.

Not bad, and others will enjoy it more than I. But so, so depressing.

Additional info
Copy borrowed from the Book Accumulator quite some time ago. Now finally I can return it. 
Publisher: Penguin, 363 pages (paperback)
Order All That I Amfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan – 6/10

“Those were the small rituals we had, what comforted us, what we loved, what we could look forward to, what we could be thankful for. And remember afterward.”

bonesetter
Ruth Young doesn’t know what to do about her ailing mother LuLing – she’s forgetful and argumentative, clearly on the cusp of Alzheimer’s. In an effort to break through her mother’s increasing paranoia, she finally makes time to sit down and read the memoirs her mother has been asking her to read for years. She learns about her mother’s difficult childhood, the time in a Christian orphanage, the struggle to get to America, and suddenly so much is clear.

The book is divided into three sections – Ruth’s initial struggles with her mother, the written account of her mother’s life in China before and during the Second World War, including the Japanese occupation, and the ending.

I actually particularly enjoyed the first section; Ruth’s struggles as the put-upon daughter, her relationship issues and distrust of her partner’s ex-wife. It’s standard commercial fiction stuff, but tempered by the cultural conflict, and more sensibly introspective than most.

The middle section is the longest. It feels like this is section that the book is really supposed to be about and the other bits are bookends (literally?) but I couldn’t have made it through the whole book if it was all in the tragic, disaster-ridden tone of the middle section. So many of these books seem to tell the same story – The Kitchen God’s Wife, Chinese Cinderella etc. i.e. the story of a daughter of the family who is somehow apart from the others, and her shameful treatment at the hands of the family. This novel is a little happier than average, and LuLing gets her happy ending without too many disasters. I found this section at once the least interestingly written and the most interesting subject matter.

The ending is a little saccharine – the domestic battle that has been bubbling for months is forgotten through a lavish financial contribution; the step-daughters who are surly and difficult at the start of the book suddenly want to spend time with Ruth and her mother. There is a late discussion with someone who would actually have been able to help with Ruth’s troubles had she only thought to ask earlier (as was the case in The Kitchen God’s wife). I wonder whether the concluding section was actually carved too savagely by an editor? In any case, all the issues are neatly wrapped up.

As I always do with this type of book, I found the female characters strong and easily identifiable, while the men were one-dimensional and muddled. Why is this always the case? Something to do with the fact that the whole narrative is from a female perspective? Ruth is a sympathetic protagonist; struggling with her duties as a good daughter, partner and step-mother. LuLing is a more difficult character to understand, but she holds her own well enough.

A perfectly good holiday book, but there’s better works in this genre (by this author, too).

Additional info

Copy from Bookmooch, I think. It has moved house with me twice, judging by the 15/10/10 post-it on the inside cover. 
Publisher: Flamingo, 339 pages (paperback)
Order The Bonesetter’s Daughterfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

How It All Began – Penelope Lively – 8/10

“But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.”

How it all began

When Charlotte is mugged in the street one day and breaks her hip, a chain of events is set off for a much wider group of people. Her daughter Rose has to cancel a day’s work. Rose’s boss Henry goes to Manchester to give a lecture without his notes. Henry’s niece Marion cancels a date and thus reveals the affair to her lover’s wife. All because a delinquent wanted Charlotte’s cash.

Lively writes a good book. I loved Moon Tiger, quite enjoyed Heatwave (which I don’t seem to have reviewed); were I to sit down and consume her entire oeuvre, I’m confident I would enjoy it. She strikes the balance between clever writing, interesting characters, and just enough plot progression to keep things going. The plot only really exists to make the characters do things, and in fact the plot movements are only really as the result of a passage of time rather than the result of actions or events.

The cast of characters is appropriately limited so that we feel we know each of them well, without getting them mixed up with each other. It is clever to have multiple perspectives but linked characters so that the transitions from one narrator to another are not as jarring or frustrating as such transitions often are.

It’s not a demanding book to read – and this is a huge part of why I like authors like Mitchell, Patchett, Lively; you notice the quality of the writing only when there is a showy sentence. Apart from the odd “look at me, I’m good with words” sentence (like the one below), the text is not too dense, but concise and clever. It’s only 230 pages long, and I would happily have read another 100 pages, but on the other hand, it felt complete without being overcooked.

“That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could share it anyway.”

Something I noticed in How It All Began and hadn’t noticed in her other works was the occasional breaking of the fourth wall – every now and again (and pleasingly infrequently) the narrative moves from the consciousness of one of the characters out to an omniscient third party style narrator who is very conscious of the reader. The quote I selected above is just one such example. I couldn’t decide whether these added to or detracted from the book; they broke up the flow in a slightly irritating way, but the writing is so good and these little bits are sufficiently valuable to the book, that I didn’t really mind.

If you’ve enjoyed anything else by Lively, you’ll like this.

Additional info
Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Penguin, 229 pages (paperback)
Order How It All Beganfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 9/10

Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie

for reducing it.

americanah (1)

I nearly gave up on this one. I’m glad I had nothing else to read on the Tube one Monday, this fails the hundred page test but passes the two hundred page test with flying colours. So if you’re reading it and unconvinced, keep going (preferably on a train where you have no choice but to keep going), because you’ll get sucked in at some point and it’s completely worth the perseverance.

Starting in the now, then continually moving back, gives it the weak start. I wasn’t altogether happy with the ending either (though that’s thanks to my rather black and white moral compass), but that doesn’t detract from a well-plotted arching story.

The strength of this book is the huge themes. Race is an incredibly strong theme for the US setting, with Ifemelu running a race-related blog and being really very outspoken (although obviously well within her rights to be outspoken)! The portion set in the UK is much less about racism (a comment on UK attitudes compared to US?) and more about undocumented life, the constant threat of deportment, life as a shadow person. Very relevant right now given the anti-immigration platforms being traded on by the UK political parties.

The third huge theme is the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze – separated by fate and then Ifemelu’s self-perceived betrayal, her refusal to answer his letters and phone calls. When she finally does then come back from the US, there are yet more hurdles between them… but the teenage love story between them is really strong and credible while still being a “they were each other’s one in a million” type of thing.

Ifemelu is a really strong character, sort of everywoman, who doesn’t make odd or unpalatable choices (Obinze is harder to understand – quieter, and somehow the thoughts of his which are set on paper are less developed that Ifem’s?). We understand her ambition, her shame, her determination to put the world to rights. The secondary characters were much weaker in my eyes – Obinze’s wife, Ifem’s long-term boyfriends, both of their parents and uni friends all seemed more like caricatures. But this is worth reading just for Ifem and Obinze.

I don’t have the historical or cultural awareness to really get the Nigerian setting, but it’s written in an approachable style for a Western audience. Certainly the sections in the US and UK are well-researched and as a London resident I found the portion when Obinze was working as an illegal immigrant in London really interesting – it’s so totally different to my understanding of “documented” life in London.

All I can really say about this one is – read it, and get through the 100 pages. It’s worth it on the other side.

Additional info
Purchased in Manly on a recent trip to Sydney when I’d read my way through the books that Mini-Me had brought with her.
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 400 paperback pages
Order Americanahfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

How to be a Woman – Caitlyn Moran – 4/10 (DNF)

“But, bafflingly, we totally accept the uselessness of heels. We accept it limply, shruggingly. We are indifferent to the thousands of pounds, over a lifetime, we spend on shoes we only wear once, and in great pain. Indeed, we’re oddly proud of it. Women buy shoes and gigglingly say, ‘Of course, they’re agony – I’m just going to have to sit on a barstool all night, and be helped to the toilet by friends, or passers-by,’ despite it sounding as OUTRIGHT INSANE as going, ‘I’ve just bought a house – it doesn’t have a roof, of course, so I’m just going to sit in the front room with an umbrella up.’”

htbaw

“Part memoir, part rant” by Caitlyn Moran (star columnist at The Times, among many other illustrious places) about life as a woman. Rather more specifically, her life as a woman, because there was really not an awful lot in here that I recognised. See the rant above about high heels? It’s against all my principles to buy shoes that are uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, Moran is a highly comedic, perceptive, intelligent writer. There were parts of every chapter that I really enjoyed. There is a glorious chapter about 80 pages in called “I am a Feminist!” which includes some really smart writing.

But there were parts that I outright disagreed with – or worse, didn’t understand at all. Which made me feel pretty confused – how can I not understand this? I left it in the bathroom for weeks, reading a bit at a time, sometimes getting sucked in for 20-30 pages, sometimes finding it unbelievably frustrating and resolving to throw it out. And I couldn’t get hugely excited about chapters about body parts… we have them, deal with it.

Maybe if you have a stronger stomach and are more stridently inclined, you’d love this. I think if you tipped over the edge into slightly liking this, you’d really like it; I just got too … ranted out.

Copy from Bookmooch. Abandoned on a Tube train on a Saturday night.

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