Monday, 10 June 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

"Adam's Utopia masked a nightmare,
as utopias generally do"

In Ian McEwan's most recent novel Nutshell (2016) he experimented with a unusual narrator, an unborn child, telling his Hamlet like story from the womb. Whilst we're on more familiar narrative turf in new novel Machines Like Me don't be fooled by the setting for McEwan's 1980s London is a re-imagined city where Londoners bump into 'synthetic humans' walking their dogs in the park.

McEwan's protagonist is Charlie Friend, a thirty-something currency trader who invests the proceeds from selling his mother's house on one of the first commercially available AI robots on the market. Though he initially wanted to buy an 'Eve' he settles for an 'Adam' when the female model ends up being out of stock. But it is the backdrop to the story that really defines this retro Sci-Fi novel. 

It's the early 1980s and Margaret Thatcher clings to power following defeat in the Falklands, The Beatles (recently reformed) receive a panning from the critics for their latest album and Alan Turing (having chose prison over chemical castration) drives an open top car around Soho as an ageing and flamboyant Elon Musk type character.

It is in this twisted reality that Charlie finds himself tangled in a love triangle with his new girlfriend Miranda and Adam the empathetic robot. Needless to say, this most modern menage a trois was never going to be plain sailing but when Miranda is ultimately seduced by Adam's synthetic charms (she invites him to stay over and "recharge") Charlie is left reflecting on the stark reality of android sentience; 'Adam's Utopia masked a nightmare, as utopias generally do.' 

In Machines Like Me McEwan embraces familiar sci-fi tropes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) to Isaac Asimov's I Robot (1950) yet does so with real humour and humanity. Unlike Frankenstein's Creature, Adam is a haiku writing figure of pragmatic optimism rather than tragedy but think twice before taking him to bed. 

One of McEwan's best. 4.5⭐️

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan published by Jonathan Cape 320 pages

Monday, 3 June 2019

Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen

"The next installment in the international, bestselling Varg Veum series by one of the fathers of Nordic Noir"

Wolves at the Door finds Private Investigator Varg Veum deep into the Bergen underworld as he continues to investigate a case which has tormented him, professionally and personally, for years. Thank you Orenda for the pre-release copy.

The story is heavy on darkness as Veum meets increasingly shady characters embroiled in deceit and deception. With a rogue VW tearing round the town and knocking people of their feet there is real fear on every street corner.

Staalesens’s style is unique, his almost forensic descriptions of Bergen neighbourhoods, architecture and streets are like a travel guide. From the Hanseatic Wharfs to Brutalist social housing Veum understands Bergen innately.

At times Veum’s years in the business begin to show signs of frustration and fatigue. When he reflects that he doesn’t understand modern music you wonder whether he is really lamenting a different time when PIs functioned in a world without the internet and social media. 

With the World changing Varg Veum is in danger of becoming anachronistic but for now sit back and enjoy this old school private detective series that began in a time before Nordic Noir was a genre 3⭐️

Wolves at the Door by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett) published by Orenda 276 pages

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

"A big story perhaps too big a story"

In The Heart's Invisible Furies John Boyne writes an epic multi-generational tale about relationships, about fate and about the indirect paths our lives lead. With themes including religion, family, class and sexuality this is hard hitting and emotionally complex stuff that Boyne weaves together effortlessly.  

The novel begins and ends with Catherine Goggin who we initially meet as a pregnant 16 year old girl fleeing rural West Cork for Dublin having been told, by brutal and hypocritical priest Father James Monroe, that her chances of marriage are doomed forever. Though we follow Catherine through the rest of the book the story belongs to her son Cyril whom she gives up for adoption by a middle class couple in Dublin.

Over the next 50 years or so Boyne explores life through Cyril's eyes as a gay man in a country that evolves from ancient theocracy to the modern day referendum on gay marriage.

Dealing with sexuality and class is well trodden ground in literature which Boyne plays out in the comparison between parochial Dublin and metropolitan Amsterdam and New York but there are better versions of this paradox in books like The Buddha of Suburbia (1993). What Boyne brings to the table is a specific Irish context which is best articulated when Cyril unexpectedly moves back to Dublin from New York.

Despite the huge landscapes covered in the novel Boyne's prose is wonderfully tender and poignant in places; 'All I asked for was a sign, something to give me the courage to walk away, and you couldn't even do that!'.

Perhaps the trouble with the novel is that there is too much content. The chapters in Amsterdam could make a stand-alone novel of their own and seem over done if only to introduce the characters of Baastian and surrogate son Ignac. 

This is a big story, perhaps too big a story, that could easily have been two. 3⭐️

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne published by Doubleday 592 pages

Monday, 13 May 2019

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

"It's six A.M. Do you know where you are?"

Bright Lights Big City was a sensation when first published in 1984. Jay McInerney’s name has forever been linked to a particular hedonistic New York lifestyle where cocaine, parties and dance clubs defined an era.

Reading some 30 years later the novel perfectly captures the mood of New York City at a time just before the AIDS crisis would fully take hold and before Bret Easton Ellis took the concept to the extreme in his depiction of professional psychopath Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (1991).

McInerney's pace is as frantic and desperate as the endless drug taking. In this version of New York the party goers live beneath a huge and swinging sword of Damocles; a precarious and unsustainable existence. 

No review of Bright Lights Big City can ignore the elephant in the room, the second person narrative. This unusual narrative style has, no doubt, caused more notes in the margin than anything else. Who could argue that the second person doesn’t work in the opening line; “You're not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning”, which immediately hooks the reader into the story. The only problem is sustaining the tone throughout the whole novel. Patrick Bateman's first person narrative in American Psycho ultimately carries more resonance. 

Reservations about the narrative format aside this is a great landmark novel 4⭐️

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney published by Vintage 182 pages

Friday, 10 May 2019

The Island by Ragnar Jonasson

Compelling and intelligent Nordic Noir

Ragnar Jonasson’s first novel in the Hidden Iceland series, The Darkness, confirmed that the Icelandic winter is the perfect backdrop to pure Nordic Noir but in Book 2, The Island, Jonasson goes a step further to locate the action, in part at least, to an even more isolated setting. 

Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir is back this time investigating a death amongst a small group of friends who had gathered to commemorate the murder of another friend 10 years earlier. Jonasson ramps up the tension with a great cast of suspects each with a foot (and a story) both today and in the past.

But it is Hulda who steals the show. As an experienced detective she is unrivaled and as a woman in her sixties she has the emotional intelligence to land at the nub of an issue quicker than everyone else. In The Island we continue to learn more about Hulda, this time following her attempt to connect with her father who had been a US soldier based in Iceland in the years after World War II.

The Island is a compelling and intelligent slice of Nordic Noir with the optimum amount of light and shade to appeal to both crime and literary fiction fans in equal measure. Jonasson makes crime fiction look easy, but painting by numbers this isn’t, pick up plenty of other Nordic Noir and you’ll realise just how good Ragnar Jonasson is. 

We need more from Hilda please Mr Jonasson 5⭐️

The Island: Hidden Iceland Series Book 2 by Ragnar Jonasson, translated by Victoria Cribb, published by Michael Joseph 352 pages

Book 1 review here

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

From the Korean Queen of Crime

You-jeong Jeong's million selling Korean crime thriller The Good Son has now been translated for the English speaking market having been a hit both in Asia and across Europe. With Jeong already carrying the 'Queen of crime' moniker you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

The Good Son begins with the titular good son, Yu-Jin, waking up at home in Incheon covered in blood. The recent past is a complete blur but with a dead body in the living room there is some serious clearing up to be done. This is less a 'who done it' than a 'why done it' as the book is in many ways the profile of a young psychopath but to leave it at that would be reductive.

What Jeong does really well is explore the relationship between Yu-Jin and his over-bearing mother and 'can do no wrong' adopted brother. We are teased with insight as Jeong drip feeds the backstory until we understand for ourselves why a smart, swim champion teen becomes a prescription drug addicted killer.

The translation by Chi-Young Kim is sound but there are a couple of places where The Good Son feels a little too international in style, the Vangelis soundtrack and the references to The Bucket List are examples. These banal references may or may not be in the original Korean text but a packing in contemporary Korean cultural references would have been a opportunity to build a more distinct oeuvre.   

A few misgivings aside this is a brilliant page turner for crime fans. 4⭐️

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim, published by Little Brown 320 pages

Monday, 22 April 2019

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

Gently but profoundly undone at the seams

Tessa Hadley's new novel, Late in the Day, is a deliciously nuanced tale about a group of friends whose lives begin to unravel when one of them suddenly collapses and dies at work. So begins a collective grieving process that opens old wounds and exposes past betrayal.

Hadley's group of friends are ordinary, in an urbane literary kind of way; where other characters's might explode with rage Hadley's come gently but profoundly undone at the seams thanks to subtle yet powerful prose. 

Yes this is another novel about art dealers, music teachers and Schubert but Hadley finds a way to keep the characters fresh and relatable. The trip to the Venice Biennale may be a step too far for some but this is worth forgiving as you become absorbed in the story. Johanna Thomas-Corr, writing in The Guardian, went as far as to call the novel a 'Hampstead version of the Cherry Orchard' but for me Late in the Day is a British novel.

Beautifully written with intelligent poise and restraint. 4⭐️

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley published by Jonathon Cope 288 pages

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Lanny by Max Porter

First 5 star review of the year

Max Porter's new novel Lanny  is a novel you'll never forget you read. Porter may have begun to define his unique poetic style in the brilliant Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2016) but with Lanny he takes us to the next level and beyond with pure literary virtuosity.

The book tells the story of a missing boy in a small commuter village on the outskirts of London; a well worn literary trope given a new lease of life by Porter. The boy is wistful and at times a loner until his creative mother encourages him to spend time with a local artist whilst his father takes the train into town daily reflecting on the advent of middle aged ennui. Neither parent is prepared for the shock of what follows.

Stylistically the novel is a tour de force. Porter writes each chapter from a different perspective  which provides the reader with tension, pace and adrenalin as the story unfolds. But its the narration from Dead Papa Toothwort that is most memorable. Made from snippets of overheard phrases Dead Papa Toothwort is the voice of the town, the ethereal personality of the earth itself whose appearance can shape-shift and take the form of whom or whatever he likes.

Dead Papa Toothwort is a device which Porter uses boldly to lift Lanny from novel to fable adding myth and folklore to the contemporary setting. Like an ancient text Dead Papa Toothworth's laments can be hard to read as they twist and swirl across and around the page making Lanny an experience as much as a read.

Lanny is classic, there is no doubt. Read in one go for maximum impact. 5⭐️

Lanny by Max Porter published Faber and Faber 224 pages

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman

From infatuation to obsession

Enigma Variations is a beautifully written novel from Andre Aciman (of Call Me by your Name fame) that charts the loves and losses of one man, Paul. What begins with boyish infatuation becomes sheer idolatry and vivid obsession as the novel moves through the key relationships that come to define his identity. 

Paul is an interesting and well crafted character best understood as an adolescent but as he grows up into a young man and then into middle age his obsessions become ever more self indulgent.

Beyond the first part, set on a stunning Italian island, this is a glacially slow novel with ‘variations’ that lack rhythm and cadence. The subtlety that Aciman uses in places is as gorgeous as in Call Me By Your Name but Enigma Variations ultimately leaves you longing for more. Luckily we don't have long to wait for Elio and Oliver's return in the Call Me By Your Name sequal 3⭐️

Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman published Faber and Faber 288 pages

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

From infatuation to obsession

Like many contemporary Japanese novels If Cats Disappeared from the World packs a huge punch for such a slim novel. Also like many Japanese novels, there are cats.

Like Christopher Marlowe's Faustus or Aladdin in The Arabian Nights, the book is based on a simple question of morality; what would you give up for an extra day of your life? In this case a Hawaiian shirt wearing incarnation of the Devil poses this question to a terminally ill man. 

Before we get to living without cats Kawamura considers life without watches and mobile phones each time revealing more about what it means to be alive. This is simple stuff eloquently presented by a great storyteller.

Whilst not a joyful premise If Cat's Disappeared From the World is remarkably positive and life affirming. If it doesn't lead to you rethinking your priorities in life nothing will!

With more than a million copies sold at home in Japan a film adaptation from released in 2016. 4⭐️

If Cats Dissapeared from the World by Genki Kawamura published Picador 144 pages

2016 Film Adaptation

Sunday, 17 March 2019

A Winter's Promise by Christelle Dabos

Read now before the inevitable Netflix series

Imaginative young adult fantasy fiction with more than a nod to Philip Pullman and Studio Ghibli. The world Dabos creates is rich, enticing and completely immersive. Read now before the inevitable Netflix series. 

Originally published in France as 'Les Fiances de L'Hiver', the novel is Book One of the Mirror Visitor Quartet. Expect more from the expert pen of Christelle Dabos 4⭐️
A Winter's Promise by Christelle Dabos  (translated by Hildegarde Serle) published Europa Editions, 468 pages

Book Two in the series published in English May 2019