Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

"And somewhere the painter, still, observing"

Amy Sackville's novel Painter to the King fictionalises the life and career of Diego Velasquez the official and favourite court painter to Spain's Philip IV.

Through both biographical and art history elements Sackville brings to life the meteoric rise of the talented painter who moved from Seville to the court of Madrid in pursuit of artistic success. 

Enabled by the drama of the court and the audacity of the King, Velasquez has opportunity to paint quotidian scenes from the inner sanctum of the court as well as grand portraits of the King himself used to control the population and to raise funds for war. Sackville's portrayal of Velasquez is one of a confidante to a king with unlimited access to both the private and public life of the Monarch; "And somewhere the painter, still, observing".

Occasionally the narrative is interrupted by the voice of the author as she follows in Velasquez's footsteps through modern Madrid. This device is confusing at first but works in the context of a historical novel which never loses sight of its unique and distinct voice.

Less successful are the thumbnail black and white details from the paintings which are reductive and unnecessary given that even the simplest of searches will reveal the world of Velasquez on screen 4⭐️

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville published by Granta Books 336 pages

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

"A novella for our times"

'That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature'

The Cockroach takes Kafka's Metamorphosis as the starting point for a novel about a man who turns into cockroach, only in McEwan's world this man is the Prime Minister. With a country bitterly divided by an existential decision, in this case it's the economic theory of Reversalism, a dysfunctional government struggles to find any semblance of a solution.

If this all sounds familiar you'll enjoy McEwan's intelligent satire on Britain in 2019. For literary fans the Kafka adaptation is a bit of a misnomer as there is little beyond the opening scene. 

So contemporary is this novella that the publishers must have literally been stacking the shelves as the ink dried. 3⭐️

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan published by Vintage 112 pages

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman bu Niklas Natt Och Dag

"Dark Scandi-Noir through unique, and authentic, lens"

Niklas Natt Och Dag's debut novel was a huge hit when published at home in Sweden as 1793. The novel's success with readers is doubtless Natt Och Dag's blend of the darkest elements of Scandi crime thrillers with the best aspects of historical fiction. The result is a detective novel like no other on the bookshelves.

Natt och Dag is uniquely positioned to write a novel set in 18th Century Stockholm given that he can trace his own lineage to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Sweden. These are dark times for Stockholm, with Europe gripped by the aftermath of the French Revolution, the establishment is rocked and social unrest creates an atmosphere of fear.

The Stockholm presented in the novel is a filthy city of crime, filth and poverty brought to life credibly in settings such as 'The Perdition', a pub with a  mural on the wall barely visible through the soot  in which 'Peasants and burghers, noblemen and priests, join hands around a skeleton who is playing a fiddle as black as tar'.

The story is told from the perspectives of several characters whose truths overlap in the narrative. Amputee war veteran Mickel Cardell is first to discover a body in 'The Larder', a lake just South of the city walls. This macabre scene sets the tone for a story that is brutal, violent and horrific throughout. Mickel's investigative partner is brilliant young lawyer Cecil Winge who is so ill with consumption that this case could be the one and only chance for him to make a name for himself.

At times the story loses track at it wends and weaves through Anna Stina's story in the workhouse but stick with it as the plot neatly comes together when the identity of the body is revealed. A strong stomach is required for some of the most macabre scenes, make no mistake.

Dark Scandic-Noir with through a unique and authentic historical lens  4⭐️

The Wolf and The Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag published by John Murray 416 pages

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

"I'm black and white in a full colour universe"

Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize nominated novel Quichottte (pronounced key-SHOT) is a contemporary road-trip novel inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605). In Rushdie's update a pharmaceutical salesman 'of Indian origin, advancing years and retreating mental powers' sets off, with his son Sancho, across America in search of his obsession, Bollywood actress turned TV star Salma R.

The road-trip itself takes in myriad towns across the US allowing Rushdie the perfect opportunity to use his literature to comment on Trumpism, celebrity culture, climate change, xenophobia and the opioid crisis. As a state of the nation piece this is insightful, intelligent and, at times, highly entertaining writing with  level of satire that Cervantes would doubtless applaud. Yet with Salman Rushdie there is typically more at play. 

The road-trip is framed as a story within a story about a second rate spy writer, with the pen name Sam DuChamp, who creates the character Quichotte and his son Sancho who is invisible to everyone but his father. This narrative flourish, with a nod to the Cervantes source text, proves essential as the story becomes increasingly fantastic - at one point a talking cricket appears to console Sancho in a tribute to Pinocchio, later the inhabitants of one town transform into mastodons, the mammoth like creatures whose fossilised remains turn up across North America, as their ideology becomes increasingly prehistoric. 

If there is a problem with Quichotte it is that Rushdie tries to do too much with the story. Though there are road trip elements the novel has more in common with the surrealist melancholy of Haruki Murakami or Franz Kafka; 'I'm black and white in a full colour universe' Sancho realises as he tries to understand his nature. 

There are times when Rushdie's own voice becomes over-bearing as the writer of the novel speaks about the spy thriller writer who has written a story about a salesman, its exhausting. Nontheless, overall Quichotte is an expertly told story that rides the zeitgeist like a modern day Don Quixote. 

Remarkable, challenging and thought provoking 4.5⭐️

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie published by Jonathan Cape 416 pages

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Need by Helen Philips

"That's what fossils from dead lineages are.... messengers from alternate realities"

A desperately busy mother finds herlself stretched to the limits. Childcare and breast-feeding demands vie for attention with the strange fossils she is unearthing at work as a paleobotanist; an ancient coke bottle, toy soldiers with monkey tails, a bible with all devine pronouns changed to 'she'. 

When an intruder enters the family home we're left wondering ,is this the reality or the work of an over whelmed mind?

Disturbing, fascinating and utterly unique 4⭐️

The Need by Helen Philips published by Chatto and Windus 272 pages

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Lie With Me by Philipe Besson

"I am this young man there, in the winter of Barbezieux"

Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is a beautifully written love story told from the perspective of a writer who is transported back to school by a chance encounter in the bar of a hotel.

The flashback part of the story is set in a small town, Barbezieux, in France in 1984 where an awkward seventeen year old boy Philippe gazes at his school mate Thomas as he leans against a wall with his 'shaggy hair, the hint of a beard and a serious look'. Barbezieux is 'from a bygone era, a dying city, a past without glory' yet in this unlikely setting a passionate relationship develops between the boys. 

The structure of the novel is well conceived. A middle aged Philippe spots a young man who immediately transports him back to his first experience of love at school. The young man, Philippe discovers, is Thomas's son Lucas. 

That such events were to unfold in this unremarkable town to this unremarkable boy are told with innocence by Besson whose prose is never over the top. Both passion and shame are vividly portrayed with understated intimacy.

The fact that the novel is translated from the French by Eighties movie icon, and francophile, Molly Ringwald is a boon. 

A tender and innocent book you'll want to read in one sitting 4⭐️ 

Lie with Me by Philippe Besson published by Penguin 160 pages

Monday, 14 October 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A few short words about an epic read

Herman Melville's literary landmark novel, Moby Dick (1851), is a whale sized read. Not only are the 720 pages themselves daunting but a cursory flick through reveals just how dense Melville's writing is combing literary fiction with essay and encyclopaedia in a unique tome. So what is the experience of cracking the spines on a novel like Moby Dick today?

First up the novel is a classic adventure story with action, heroes and episodic thrills as novice seaman Ishmael joins an experienced whaling crew lead by Captain Ahab. From Nantucket to the South China Sea Captain Ahab obsessively leads his crew across the globe in search of the legendary great white whale Moby Dick.

The crew of The Pequod itself are a diverse group of men. Whalers from New England work alongside harpooners from the Pacific and sailors from Asia. For a novel set in the 1850's Melville's cast are drawn from especially distinct backgrounds but its the relationship between narrator Ishmael and crew mate Queequeg which is the most interesting. Early in the novel the pair agree to share a bunk and to essentially live together in a same sex marriage; "He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married". Over 100 years before the US Enterprise, The Pequod was leading the way on diversity and inclusion.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the experience is losing yourself in a truly immersive book. Melville expertly allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of Ishmael whose naivety and youth permit the switch from prose fiction style chapters to the essays. In this way we learn about the World, about the 'taxonomy of cetecea' and the intricacies of whaling through the eyes of a young man who is literally a sponge.

Everything about Moby Dick is exceptional no less its legacy given that Melville himself died in obscurity in 1891 before the book was celebrated as a classic.  

Broad in ambition and rich in achievement 5⭐️ 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville published by Penguin Classics 720 pages

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

"Prometheus turbo charged"

Hot on the heels of Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me Jeanette Winterson turns her hand to the theme of artificial intelligence and transhumanism in new title Frankissstein. Rather than set in an alternate version of Britain, Winterson weaves a contemporary story about medical science and ethics around a fictionalised account of Mary Shelley's time on Lake Geneva in 1816 where she original told her ghost story that would become Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.

The flashbacks to the circumstances that led to Mary Shelley creating the most famous gothic horror story in history are expertly told through her relationship with husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and with their vacation buddy Lord Byron. Likewise Shelley's journey back to London and visits to the Bedlam Hospital are a great build on the Frankenstein myth but it is the contemporary story that really stands apart.

Ry Shelley is a young transgender doctor who falls in love with AI expert Victor Stein whilst investigating the medial ethics around Stein's work. In this adaptation Mary Shelley herself becomes the protaganist, in Ry, which enables Winterson to authentically weave together gender politics and transhumanism in a way that is characteristically thought provoking,

Like McEwan's Machines Like Me the story raises questions about the role of AI and the relations we form with them. In Frankissstein most research and development revolves around the Chinese sexbot industry which drives exponential growth in the development of AI like a turbo charged Prometheus. The unintended consequences are articulated with realistic danger in this cracking read.

The reinvention of a classic story brought right up to date 5⭐️ 

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson published by Jonathan Cape 352 pages

Saturday, 21 September 2019

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

"Step One, move to the city"

Though the paperback cover looks more like an advert for a Bollywood movie this novel is actually a well crafted work of literary fiction in the guise of a self-help book.

As the title suggests, Hamid parodies the step by step approach of countless business books in this tale about a boy born into poverty who moves to the city in search of fame and fortune. The story is packed with romance and humour which balances the sheer hard work required to 'get filthy rich'.

The narrative is told in the awkward second person which some readers will find off putting. The omnipresent narrator's use of 'you' keeps us as readers at some distance to the main character which ultimately risks any opportunity for empathy. Luckily Mohsin Hamid understands the risk and more than compensates with the self-help conceit.

Read right now for maximum impact 3.5⭐️ 

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid published by Penguin 240 pages

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

"Read right now for maximum impact"

On a Japanese island, in a dystopian near future, the population are fiercely governed by The Memory Police who enforce social order in a world where things simply evaporate. Disappearances come suddenly and unannounced; flowers, birds, calendars, simply vanish without a trace along with the memories associated with them. 

Seen through the eyes of an unnamed novelist this is a story about the unreliability of memory. Though there is hope in the clues concealed within the sculptures created by her mother and love in the relationship she has with her editor there is an inevitability to life on the island; "After these relatively uneventful weeks, another disappearance occurred..... but this one was more complicated; this time novels disappeared. 

Stephen Snyder translates Ogawa's original mid-nineties prose and is able to maintain the crisp and minimal style that Ogawa is known for in works such as Revenge and Hotel Iris.

Whether as a cautionary tale about enjoying what you have before its gone or as a meditation on growing old and the cruelty of Alzheimer's, The Memory Police is hugely successful. The image of the Memory Police maintaining pervasive surveillance in a world that changes overnight seems as relevant and prescient as John Lanchester's The Wall

All that's missing is more world building; who governs the Memory Police and who decides what and when disappears? The lack of answers if frustrating but then again, when it comes to Yoko Ogawa, where's the fun in full resolution.

Read right now for maximum impact 4.5⭐️ 

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa published by Pantheon 288 pages

Monday, 2 September 2019

Brother by David Chariandy

"A story deeply influenced by the setting"

David Chariandy's new novel has already won a sack full of awards at home in Canada, including the Toronto Book Award, and is now available in the UK published by Bloomsbury. The novel is told by Michael who looks back on the series of events that led up to him losing his older Brother, Francis, when they were young men in the 1980s.

This is a story deeply influenced by the setting of Scarborough, a poor migrant neighbourhood in Toronto sometimes referred to by the monikers 'Scarlem' or 'Scardistan'. It is Scarborough that drives the extreme work ethic in the boys' Trinidadian mother who works double shifts to raise her children. It is Scarborough that taints the expectations of the boys who are acutely aware of the social order; 'Even as kids, we learned to be gentle with each other's hoped and dreams'. It is Scarborough that defines the response to a key incident that is described in the first quarter of the novel.

The novel pivots on the murder of a boy at a local convenience store. The neighbourhood becomes a scene of danger and fear which is described effortlessly; 'Even the ordinary clothes that people hung out to dry on laundry lines suddenly looked suspicious. Conspiracies in the open hanging of slacks and saris, in the headless baby jumpers'.

Chariandy's prose is elegant yet contemporary. His characters are believable and authentic yet there is something that gets in the way of the narrative being truly immersive. Mother is the best formed and most memorable character but Michael's childhood girlfriend, Aisha, is less fully fledged . Like Aisha, as a reader we feel slightly too removed from the world of Scarborough.

A thin novel that packs a bigger punch  3.5⭐️ 

Brother by David Chariandy published by Bloomsbury 249 pages

For a similar read try In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne