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Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Review: The Devil and Miss Prym

The Devil and Miss PrymThe Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Paulo Coelho‘s The Alchemist book is one of those books that I categorize as having a rabid, zealous following…much like Ayn Rand’s books, and to some extent The Catcher in the Rye…books that some people claim they love or were life-changing.  I read The Alchemist years ago hoping that it would be a book that I loved.  I enjoyed it but angels didn’t sing and fireworks didn’t go off while I read it. It was okay but not the best book ever (in my opinion).

A couple of years ago I read Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die and ended up really liking it.  It made me decide that I really should read more of Coelho’s books…so I took The Devil and Miss Prym out from the library and set off. I picked this particular book because it is also on the list of 1001 books to read before you die. 

Once again, Coelho has written a fable. This one is set in a remote mountain village. A stranger shows up in the village one day and talks with Miss Prym, a villager who works at the local inn and bar.  The stranger show Miss Prym a fortune in gold and tells her that if the villagers kill one of their own, they can have all of the gold.  The stranger is trying to find out if people are at their core good or evil.

So how did I feel about The Devil and Miss Prym?  Once again, this was a book that fell into the “it was okay” camp.  I didn’t love it.   It felt a little flat to me.  The characters were one-dimensional and not very believable. Nevermind that none of the characters were likeable in any way.  Deep down I didn’t care what decision they made or what happened to them.  The book was loaded with parables but the main story line was lackluster and did little to pull me in.  It would have been better if it was edited to be at least 100 pages shorter. In a nutshell: this book was just ‘meh’ to me.  I will cling fondly to my memories of “Veronika Decides to Die”: my past and still current favorite Coelho book.

Review: Austerlitz

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Translated into English from the original German, Austerlitz is filled with beautiful, complex prose that is best read slowly.  The novel features an unnamed narrator recounts his encounters and discussions with a man called “Austerlitz”.  Austerlitz is a middle-aged man in search of answers about his past.  His past is slowly uncovered through a series of digressions and fractured narratives.  At every meeting with Austerlitz the narrator finds out more about him through discussions about memories and architecture.  We learn about how the Holocaust tore apart Austerlitz and his family and how a young Austerlitz repressed those memories to the point that he actually thought he was the son of the Welsh couple who took him in.

This book was a challenge to read, especially in the beginning and it definitely isn’t for everyone. There were sentences that went on for 5+ pages and the narrative style is far from what you usually find in novels.  But if you are up for a reading challenge with a book that requires your full attention you should consider reading Austerlitz.

Review: The Book

The BookThe Book by M. Clifford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Steps to freak yourself out:

    1. Buy a Kindle or other e-book device.
    2. Purchase and download the novel The Book by M. Clifford.
    3. Consider yourself freaked out.

One of my book clubs selected the novel “The Book” as our monthly suggestion. I had never heard of this book until fellow bookclubber Joanie added it to her to-read list on goodreads. It sounded like just the sort of book I would enjoy reading (think dystopian novel where books are controlled by “the man”). 

“The Book” is a self-published novel that was release earlier this year. It is set in the United States in the  not too distant future at a time when everyone has an e-reader called “The Book”.  The Book is distributed and automatically updated by The Publishing House.  All books are read in electronic form as paper books are illegal due to environmental laws that have banned the use of paper. 

The lead character, Holden Clifford loves to read. He looks forward to his ride home from work where he can take out his Book and continue reading.  Holden has never read from anything other than The Book.  When he stumbles across a single paper page from “The Catcher in the Rye”,  Holden discovers that the text of his favorite novel is not the same in The Book as when it was originally published.  This leads Holden down the path of figuring out why the contents of The Book were altered and just how many other works have been changed from their original version. 

I highly enjoyed this book.  M. Clifford did an excellent job evoking a nation where what people read and think is highly censored and controlled.  It reminded me of some of my favorite dystopian reads such as Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  If you were a fan of these classic dystopian novels I recommend that you read “The Book”.  I also recommend this book if you love the act of cracking open a book and flipping through the pages…smelling that book scent. 🙂  “The Book” will force you to think about how much we can trust what we read in an electronic medium.

For more information check out the novel’s website:

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Review: Animal’s People: A Novel

Animal's People: A NovelAnimal’s People: A Novel by Indra Sinha

“Animal” is a 19-year old Indian boy who was disfigured as a result of a chemical plant explosion in his town when he was a small boy. The disaster caused his spine to become bent in such a manner that Animal is forced to walk on all fours.  Since both his parents died in the incident, Animal is raised by nuns in an orphanage and also spends a good deal of time earning a living by running scams on the streets of Khaufpur.

My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless, it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve into darkness. That’s how it is here.  All the world knows the name of Khaufpur, but no one knows how things were before those nights.

“Animal” makes for an interesting if sometimes frustrating narrator. The text is full of his colorful language. Animal tells his story in a mix of English, Hindi, and French. His English and French are sometimes phonetically interpreted versions of the real word…for example he refers to spying on people as “jamisponding”, which he got from “James Bond”-ing.  (don’t worry, if you don’t know any Hindi, there is a glossary in the back of the book).  Just as Animal struggles with life in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole city struggles. There are major health and poverty issues throughout the city. Many of the people Animal interacts with lost loved ones after the explosion or have had negative health impacts.

“Animal’s People” is a fictional story based on the real Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India in 1984. The book is full of tragedy but has a good dose of black humor woven throughout.  The book is a gritty read that will definitely leave a mark on you. 

I recommend this book to people who enjoyed any of Salman Rushdie’s books or A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Read with caution though if you are turned off by crude language and lewd thoughts or if you don’t enjoy books with lots of foreign words in the narrative.

“Animal’s People”  was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize and was also listed as one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

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Review: The Painted Veil

The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rented the recent film version of  The Painted Veil (starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) from Netflix sometime last year when I was deeply entrenched in my pregnancy. I vaguely recall watching it at home alone one Sunday and falling asleep on the ending. Oops, that is what pregnancy did to me…made me take naps in the middle of the day, no matter what else was going on.

So, as I was reading this novel, I had random flashbacks to my slumber-hazed memories of the film. In my mind the lead characters Walter and Kitty Fane were Norton and Watts.  But while the movie made Walter and Kitty equal “leads” in the story, the novel definitely focuses on Kitty.  Kitty is a pretty, young English woman in the early 20th century who clearly enjoys her carefree life of attending parties and socializing and refuses to settle down and get married…that is until her younger and less attractive  sister gets engaged and Kitty feels her mother’s disapproval about her unmarried state. In a panic, she quickly accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a serious and taciturn bacteriologist, who she has met a few times at parties.  Kitty doesn’t love Walter but she sees him as a way out of her looming “old maid” status.

If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.

Walter and Kitty move to China where Walter is doing work as a researcher for the government. Kitty quickly becomes bored in her marriage and her husband’s apparent lack of social standing.  She soon becomes involved in an affair with a married man. Walter finds out and gives her an ultimatum: she can either divorce him (and be forever stigmatized as a divorcee) or move with him to the inland China where he has volunteered to help out with a cholera epidemic. Kitty choses to stay married and moves with Walter. This is where the true heart of the novel starts.

Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.

“The Painted Veil” was a relatively quick read and I quite enjoyed it.  The story focused on a woman character, who while I didn’t like her as a person, kept me engaged. The book makes you think about the choices women make in life and what the ramifications of those choices are. It also makes you think about relationships and what it takes to make them work.  I liked “The Painted Veil” more than I liked Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge” which I read earlier this year. I look forward to reading his work “Of Human Bondage” sometime in the future.  I highly recommend “The Painted Veil” to anyone looking to read a quick, straight-forward, well written work of classic literature.

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Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two of my favorite books from the past 10 years were by David Mitchell (number9dream and Ghostwritten). Both of those books were unique and slightly trippy, which are characteristics that I really enjoy in a book.   I have been eager to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the past couple of years.  The book was included on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…and being the list-whore that I am… I feel an insatiable need to read as many books from that list as possible. 😉

Cloud Atlas did not disappoint. This book is like a nesting doll of interwoven short stories. Each short story is written in the style of a different genre, takes place in a different era, and is sliced in half…each story sandwiching another story. It is a very difficult book to explain, but at its core it is about good and evil.

The first story is a 19th century sea-fearing tale (think Billy Budd) about Adam Ewing who is travelling aboard a ship destined for California. The 2nd tale is set in the 1930’s and is about a young Englishman who takes a job working for a famous composer in Belgium…with plenty of scandal and romantic escapades (think Evelyn Waugh). The 3rd story is a mystery/crime drama set in California in the 1970’s, where journalist Luisa Rey is working to uncover the truth about a nuclear power plant that is being built in the area.  The next story brings us to present day England where publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself achieving career success but at the same time his life begins spiralling out of control and he finds himself committed, against his will to a home. The 5th story zooms forward to the near future of the 22nd century to Korea. In this future dystopia, most of the world has become a wasteland and the population is concentrated in large cities that are managed by corporations. These corporations use bioengineering to create “fabricants”, which are humans that are bred to be workers. The lead character is Somni, who works the counter at a fast food restaurant. She develops a mind of her own and a desire to learn. A group of rebels free her from the fast food enslavement and educate her so that she can help their cause.  The final story is set in the more distant future in Hawaii at a time where most of humankind has perished.  Most of the survivors have reverted to a primitive life where they simply try to get by on the land, with no technology.  There are a few more advanced groups left that travel by ship to try to find other people and try to rebuild society.  After this 6th story the other stories begin to unwind/complete in reverse order, until we are once again back to the tale of Adam Ewing.

This book is a brilliant work. Each tale may not be your cup of tea, but you can’t deny the overall literary excellence of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has truly written a unique and special book that will leave you thinking.

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Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the RainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

When this book was picked as our monthly book club selection there were quite a few people who said “Ugh, not a dog book!”. I will admit I have been waffling over the past year as to whether to read The Art of Racing in the Rain or not. On the one hand I had heard good things about the book but on the other hand I am generally not a fan of sappy animal books.

Well, I read it and found it to be a quick read that I looked forward to picking up. I enjoyed that it was told from the perspective of the dog…a philosophical dog who enjoyed watching TV and tapes of his master, Denny, racing cars. I was not a big fan of all the “life is like auto racing” chapters. I am not a car racing fan so those chapters kind of irked me and I freely admit that I started to skim those parts to get to the others chapters more quickly. “The Art of Racing…” was one of those books that made me cry at the end. Of course, I was on the train when I was reading the ending…but I sucked it up and held back those tears. Small victories!

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Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great World Spin” is set in New York City in 1974. It is a time when the World Trade Center is brand new and a young Frenchman, Phillipe Petit, takes upon himself the challenge of walking a high wire strung between the tops of the two towers. As he performs his feat a crowd of onlookers gathers below watching in awe. The crowd contains people from all walks of NY life. McCann plucks a few people from the crowd and weaves together the stories of some of these different characters.

Each chapter is told from a different first person perspective. Some of the stories are only loosely intertwined and told by characters that we never hear of again. The tales are often gritty and raw, exposing the everyday sufferings of the city’s inhabitants.

If you are the sort of reader that prefers novels told from one perspective with a linear straightforward narrative, this may not be the book for you. I have always been a fan of books that jump around to offer different perspectives so I quite enjoyed reading “Let the Great World Spin“. I found the novel to be well-written and the sort of book that I savoured as I read it. It was definitely a novel that left me thinking about it after I finished reading the last page.

Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for 2009. It was also named the best book of 2009 by

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In the Forest

In the Forest: A Novel In the Forest: A Novel by Edna O’Brien
rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

I’ve read quite a few Irish novels lately. In the Forest is my most recent read that falls into that category. This novel is based on a true story and is a creepy look into the mind of a killer. The killer in question is Michen O’Kane who we first meet as a young 10-year old boy in a small Irish town. Michen had a troubled home life full of domestic abuse and neglect.  Michen becomes known as The Kinderschreck after he steals a gun and shoots it in the general direction of two men.

The Kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun. Before that he was Michen, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and then Boy, when he went to the place, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.

Michen is sent to a juvenile detention center where he is tormented by the older boys and abused by a priest. He spends the next several years in and out of various detention centers and jails. Over time, Michen becomes a very troubled and mentally unstable young man. The residents of his small Irish village try to tolerate him at first but soon enough start to feel terrified of him.

The novel is told with alternating perspectives in each chapter. Some chapters are told from Michen’s point of view, some from his victims and other chapters from the various villagers whose paths Michen crosses. The prose was lyrical and the Michen chapters could be very difficult and disturbing reads at times. His mind became so twisted it was hard to tell what was real and what was dementia.

I recommend this book to those who enjoyed other books that let the reader delve into mind of a killer such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Flann O’Brien’s The Third PolicemanIn the Forest was included on the original list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I am slowly working my way through that list (I can’t resist tackling to-do lists)  At this rate I hope I don’t die until I am 120.  Must.finish.all.1001.books… 😉

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Slow Man

Slow Man Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sixty-something Paul Rayment is a photographer who is hit by a car one day while out riding his bicycle.  The collision shatters his leg and the doctors amputate it near the knee. Paul refuses a prosthesis. He finds himself feeling hopeless and isolated.

A circumscribed life. What would Socrates say about that? May a life become so circumscribed that it is no longer worth living?  Men come out of prison, out of years of staring at the same blank wall, without gloom taking possession of their souls. What is so special about losing a limb? A giraffe that loses a leg will surely perish; but giraffes do not have the agencies of the modern state, embodied in Mrs. Putts, watching over their welfare.  Why should he not settle for a modestly circumscribed life in a city that is not inhospitable to the frail aged.

 Paul who used to pride himself on his independence now finds himself having to depend on others. Two people he develops relationships with are Marijana, his Croatian nurse, and Elizabeth Costello, an author who mysteriously shows up at his door one day. Paul proclaims his love for Marijana and Elizabeth tries to push him to take a hold of his life and do something.

Slow Man  is the third Coetzee novel that I have read…and that man can write!  All of his novels cause you to think about their central themes long after you put the book down.  Slow Man, like his other novels. has a darker set of  themes: loneliness, isolation from others (both emotional and physical), and hopelessness.  Paul is a stubborn man who refuses to try to rebuild his life…instead he just wallows in his own loneliness and laments over his fate. Paul’s plight caused me to think about making each day count and developping deep meaningful relationships with people. The book also has hints of meta-fiction, which is almost always a plus as far as I am concerned.

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