During the clean up of my email in box (now down to a more manageable 250 unread emails) I came across an old post on the 101 books blog where Robert had commented that he doesn’t like reading book reviews on blog sites. “Book reviews are boring,” he declared, a simple statement which provoked a lively debate. To be fair, he also said that he finds the act of writing them on his own site rather tedious and he would rather just write about other book related topics, facts about authors that you didn’t know for example.
People who left comments seemed to agree on a few things: writing a good review takes time and effort and you need to do more than just explain the plot if you want to engage people. A few people said they were not at all interested in other people’s reviews or that they only read those where the featured author was one in whom they were already interested. One big area of agreement seemed to be that blog sites which featured only reviews were a turn off.
I can certainly relate to the comment about how much effort it takes to write a review that might be worth other people reading. Hence why I am about 10 reviews behind right now – I keep procrastinating because I want to say something more than just whether I enjoyed the book. There is an art to this reviewing business, especially if you want to do more than simply regurgitate the plot or repeat the publisher’s blurb. I look at pieces written by professional reviewers in some of the leading newspapers and sigh because they are light years ahead of my attempts. Despite sniffy comments from some quarters (Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously was one of the guilty ones here) some bloggers are equally as skilled in reviewing and even though I don’t particularly have an interest in the author or the genre, I enjoy seeing what they think or feel.
But just as a diet of ice-cream and cakes would get tedious after a day or so, I’m not enthused by reading review after review after review. I find that I can get through only so many straight review items in my feed reader before I’m longing for something different. I’ve tried mixing up my own posts to try and avoid equally boring my own readers – actually I find these non review posts much more fun to write. And I’ve been experimenting too with how I write the reviews – giving them a (hopefully) more interesting title than just the name of the book and the author. So far I’ve just done two reviews using that new approach – my ‘5 reasons to read The Miniaturist’ and ‘A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar’. A small start but at least it’s a start.
What are your thoughts on reviews – do you try to mix them up on your own site with non-review posts? What do you think of sites that have very few reviews?
Here’s the original post on Robert’s blog if you are interested: http://101books.net/2014/06/27/5-things-your-mom-didnt-tell-you-about-book-blogging/
It would be hard to picture someone less likely than A.J Fitkry to be the owner of the only bookshop of a small New England island.
Fitkry does love books. It’s his customers he doesn’t much care for, particularly those who spend all afternoon looking at his magazine collection but buying nothing, and those who know nothing more about the book they want than it was in the New York Review of Books and it had a red cover. Still less does he care for publishers’ reps who turn up at the door of Island Books trying to push their latest catalogues. And he definately doesn’t have a very high opinion of writers, viewing them generally as “unkempt, narcissitic, silly and generally unpleasant people.”
He does hold very clear views on what constitutes good literature and it certainly isn’t anything in the realm of “postmodernism, post apocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magical realism.” He loves short stories but his customers are no so enthusiastic. Hardly surprising that Island Books is experiencing its worst ever sales. Only the annual influx of tourists in the summer will help keep the ship afloat.
Fikry’s life is similarly in a downward spiral. Since the death of his wife in a road accident, he’s turned his back on the world. He numbs his pain with copious amounts of wine and dreaming of a retirement financed by the sale of his most prized possession, a very rare first edition of early Edgar Allan Poe poetry. Those plans are thrown into chaos however when the book is stolen.
Two events change his world.
First, Amelia, a new and ultra keen sales rep arrives from Knightley Press. She and A.J fail completely to connect on her first visit but slowly the ice thaws and they develop a relationship vial email and occasional lunches. More unexpectedly, someone deposits a baby girl named Maya in his shop, asking Fikry to take care of her, which he does, reluctantly at first but gradually forming a close bond with the child. Maya and Amelia provide the watershed in the life of this curmudgeonly book seller, giving him a chance to see everything through new eyes and to form new friendships.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is essentially a tale about redemption and the way life sometimes deals us a second chance to reconnect Running through the novel is a message about the transformative power of reading. The women who turn up to give him free child-minding advice turn into customers and then a book club and a police officer who is Fitry’s self-appointed guardian angel gets the reading bug too and starts his own book club for police and fire officers (they spend most of their meetings arguing about the validity of the detection methods in the crime novel they read that month.) Even Fitry has to change his opinions and finds there are such things as well written children’s books.
Appropriately for a novel featuring a book shop, there is a high bookish element to this novel — apart from the many references to books made by the characters, each chapter begins with the title of a real short story and a brief personal note from Fitry to Maya about the story . His verdict on Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Claveras County is that it’s worth reading because of the fun Twain has with narrative authority even if the author is having more fun than the reader. Irwin Shaw’s Girls in their Summer Dresses prompts a fatherly note to Maya: “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”
This is a perfect novel for those who like fiction with a high poignancy and life affirming quota. It’s not quite my cup of tea. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it — Zevin is an accomplished author so her story reads very smoothly and I enjoyed many parts of it, particularly the section that leads up to the discovery of the child and the humour of the police chief’s book club. But much of the book felt too much like the adage ‘happiness writes white’ for my taste. I’d have preferred it if Fitry had stayed grumpy for a lot longer and Maya wasn’t portrayed quite so much as an extraordinary child. Maybe that’s just me being grumpy though.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fitry by Gabrielle Zevin is published in paperback by Algonquin Books in US and Little, Brown in the UK in April 2014.
Thanks to the publishers for providing me with an advance copy.
Gabrielle Zevin has published six novels – learn more about her work at her website http://gabriellezevin.com
If there is such a thing as a quirkiness index for novels, Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? would be well towards the top. It’s a novel that will either have you scratching your head in bewilderment but nevertheless enjoying the feeling or giving up in frustration but not until you had screamed what-the-hell-is-going-on several times and maybe even thrown the book into the corner. This is therefore a book which you will either love because of its convoluted humerous narrative or loathe on the basis that the narrative is too digressive and ultimately ‘nothing much happens’.
The fact that nothing much happens is indeed central to the story. Okotie leads us a merry dance with this book, on foot and by bus through the streets of an unnamed city in a hunt for Harold Absolon, the missing transport advisor to the city’s mayor. On his trail is a detective/private investigator called Marguerite who comes up with a plan to find Harold by following his wife Isobel.
Marguerite dissects in minute detail, the implications of everything he experiences on his journey, analysing what he sees from every possible angle in an effort to ensure he will not make a mistake. Acutely aware that his handling of the situation will be judged at some future point, that he “would stand accused, in short of both fabrication … and actual indolence”, and his “thoughts cross-examined at some point by someone less kind to himself than himself” he is at pains to do things by the book. But every new situation he discovers has so many possibilities for interpretation that take him down blind alleys, that he never really makes much progress with his investigation.
His digressions become more and more absurd as the book progresses. In the first chapter seeing his quarry disappear into a lift, he meditates on why lifts simply go up and down but not sideways; minutes later as he follows Isobel through the streets, he considers the correct nomenclature for T junctions and crossroads which are not in fact shaped like a cross. Later we find him advocating standardising the conditions for the term ‘bicycle’. Every thought spurs another thought and sub thought. He gets so deep into these internal debates he completely misses what is obvious to the reader and also loses the very person who is supposed to lead him to Harold; “satisfied with this conclusion, Marguerite looked up to see that Isobel Absalon, her friend and baby, had disappeared.”
Marguerite thinks of himself as a great detective, renowned for his incisive precision. Or as he prefers to describe himself: “the golden retriever of detectives whether or not they were the same as labradors, gold signifying in his mind the best of the best, the Olympic champion investigator, and retriever indicating the retrieval of missing persons.” It’s abundantly clear to the reader however that he is a bumbler. Every time he gets near to a discovery that could help him solve the mystery, he misses the clue because his mind is too focused on the minutiae.
If this was the novel in its entirety, I wouldn’t have finished reading it on the basis that it’s humour was repetitive. But Simon Okotie does something quite clever with this narrative which is what kept me reading. Alongside his main story another darker story unfolds, told through 26 random footnotes. Someone — and its not absolutely clear who that person is for some considerable time — gives us a tale of jealousy and possible revenge, in which Marguerite becomes increasingly implicated. It’s an inventive touch that effectively destabilises the main narrative, causing us to look beyond the humour to create our own interpretation.
Okotie crams a lot into a short novel (just over 200 pages) where the action lasts for little more than 30 minutes. He does so with great panache.
Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? was published in 2013 by the UK company Salt Publishing.
Simon Okotie was born to Nigerian/English parents. He lives in London. His autobiographical first novel about growing up in rural Norfolk was a runner-up for the 1998 Saga Prize for black British fiction.
The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.
Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.
Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.
This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child. In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.
He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.
He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.
The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.
If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.
A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved.
I read The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell for the sole reason that it was the book club read for December. I say read but by the end I was skimming it, having lost all interest in the characters or the plot.
Apparently this novel belongs to a sub genre of fiction called “lad lit” or “bloke lit” which is presumably a marketing ploy dreamed up by some publishers in the hope it will generate the same level of popularity as chick lit. I’ve not read any chick lit and if The Man Who Forgot His Wife is an example of its male-orientated partner, I won’t be in a hurry to read anything of this ilk again.
This is not to say everything about O’Farrell’s book was dislikable. The premise was an interesting one: a middle aged man experiences acute amnesia while at a London Underground station. Why is he there? Where is he going? Where did he come from? He doesn’t know. Nor does he know he is called Vaughan or anything else about himself. He has no form of identification in his pockets; nothing who can answer even the basic questions about his name, address, age. No-one seems to have reported him missing.
He has in essence, disappeared.
After a week in hospital where he is diagnosed as suffering an amnesia style fugue, he is tracked down by his best friend, the very boorish Gary. The remainder of the book shows how Vaughan re-discovers elements of his life including the welcome news that he is married to a very attractive woman and has two children. As he goes through the process of rejoining the pieces of his life, he learns to be a better husband, son, father, teacher etc. In short, he doesn’t put his old life together but rather, he constructs a new one.
The novel contains some thought-provoking reflections on the nature of memory and our identity. In a world where anyone with access to a computer can re-invent themselves via an avatar, it asks us to consider whether the concept of who are is completely an artificial construct — the result of our own idealisations and re-invented recollections of the past. If O’Farrell had made this the focus of his novel, it would have sustained my interest. Unfortunately it wasn’t prominent enough to compete against the repetitive nature of the narrative. Nor was the reflective aspect enough to contend with the fairly lightweight humour.
In fact it would have been a better novel all round if half of the jokes were eliminated. They were just not funny enough and felt often as if the author was just trying too darn hard to be funny — even the running gag of a postcard featuring an Irish leprechaun which was amusing the first few times it appeared, became predictable by the end.
I had multiple issues with this book beyond the quality of the humour: the characters lacked real depth and were not people I warmed to in any way. Gary was especially irritating but I didn’t much care for Vaughan either. The narrative was at times inconsistent — at one point Vaughan conveniently remembers his wife’s computer password and also where she keeps her passport — and also felt very much as if the author had one eye on the film rights.
While most of the members of the book club felt it wasn’t one of the best reads, they were rather more tolerant than I was, so it ended with a score of 6.5 out of ten. That was a long way off the score I awarded!
The Man Who Forgot his Wife is an easy, light hearted, quick read but has little of substance to hold the attention.
I’m not going to beat about the bush on this. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one of the worst books I have read all year. Not the absolute worst, but certainly only a whisker away from the bottom of the pile.
But before I explain why I’ve taken such a dislike to this book, here is a brief synopsis of its plot.
The novel is set in Massachusetts in the summer of 1991. It features the young, aspiring Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin who intends to spend the summer researching for her doctoral dissertation. Her plans are thrown awry when her mother asks her to handle the sale of a long-abandoned house in Salem that once belonged to Connie’s grandmother. In the house Connie discovers a seventeenth-century Bible and hidden inside, a key and a small fragment of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie duly embarks on a quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane and the location of a rare book of physick. In doing so she discovers a personal connection to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
Fact and fiction are woven together in this book through a dual time-frame narrative — in between the story of Connie’s quest, we experience scenes in the household of Deliverance Dane and in the jail where she awaited trial. Deliverance Dane did actually exist — she was one of many women condemned as a witch though, unlike nineteen other women, she escaped the hangman’s noose.
In the hands of a more experienced novelist, this could have been an interesting take on an infamous period in history. But this is Katherine Howe’s debut novel and sadly her inexperience is evident.
First of all the character of her protagonist isn’t that convincing. Here we have a girl who, right at the start of the book, wows a group of leading academics with her encyclopaedic knowledge and insightful interpretation of historical themes and issues. She has spent months amassing data from the past and yet we find only a few pages later that she is astonished to discover that up until the seventeenth century (one of the periods she has studied) the word receipt actually meant recipe. Maybe she should have watched some cookery programs on TV instead of reading academic tomes?
But there was an even earlier moment at which I rolled my eyes in disbelief. If you’d pitched up on the doorstep of a seventeenth century house (having first had to virtually hack your way through creepers and other vegetation to get the door) and discover it has no power or phone and is inches deep in dust; would you want to stay the night? No, neither would I. I hazard a guess that most girls in their early twenties also wouldn’t trade it for the comforts of their flat in Cambridge. But not our Connie. She not only stays the night, she makes it her for the summer.
If characterisation isn’t this book’s strong point, then neither is the writing style. The flashback scenes to the 1680s and 90s are, on the whole, evocative of the period but the modern day sections are riven with cliches, inconsequential detail about the character’s clothing and dry dialogue. And there are also some dreadfully clunky sections where the author tries to impart some factual information but can’t quite manage to do it seamlessly.
I’m conscious that all this sounds rather harsh criticism of someone’s first foray into the fictional world but actually I think the fault lies with the publisher and editor for failing to identify where improvements could have been made or maybe even suggesting that the book would have been so much better without the modern day hocus pocus quest.