Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

"When Will Shakespeare turns up all is forgiven"

Mark Haddon's latest release, The Porpoise, is a hugely ambitious novel which loosely retells the ancient Greek legend of Pericles via a contemporary plane crash and an appearance by the ghost of Shakespeare himself. 

Haddon has re-worked ancient texts before, see his collection of short stories The Pier Falls, but in The Porpoise he really tests his skills of literary adaption. This is an epic undertaking that has all the time travelling transcendence of a David Mitchell novel.

The story begins with a young girl, Angelica, who survives a plane crash that kills her mother. Angelica is raised by her overprotective and sexually abusive father, Philippe, who guardedly shelters her from the real world until, as a young women, she meets an art dealer, Darius, who recognises the truth. This establishing plot line references King Antiochus's incestuous relationship with his daughter in Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1619).

In a fit of jealousy Philippe murders Darius leaving Angelica bereft and struggling to come to terms with her loss. Whether as a result of post traumatic stress or some sort of break-down Agelica imagines an alternate world where Darius morphs in to Pericles himself. For the bulk of the novel we follow Pericles's mission aboard his ship, The Porpoise, with brief narrative glimpses back to Angelica.

This is a dense and unforgiving story that requires full attention, and suspension of belief, from the reader. At times you are left wondering what the purpose is in The Porpoise but then Haddon reminds you quite what a great writer he is. When Will Shakespeare turns up with his pimp friend, and presumed co-writer, George Wilkins in 17th Century Southwark all is forgiven. 

Stick with it. 4⭐️

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon published by Chatto and Windus 326 pages

White by Bret Easton Ellis

"Irritating but occasionally brilliant"

Writer, critic, lover, hater, tweeter, free speaker, transgressive, white, privileged, male; in his first work of non fiction Bret Easton Ellis tries to make sense of his own life and reputation as a self-proclaimed spokesperson for Gen Xers.

Despite amazing literary success with Less than Zero and American Psycho, in particular, Ellis is equally as well known today for his outspoken tweets and controversial pod-casts which offer a no holds barred foray into gender politics and contemporary culture. In White Ellis continues along the same theme, albeit with a good dose of reflection and self-awareness.

When analysing 80s and 90s pop culture Ellis has a distinct and valuable perspective. The sections in the book exploring the origin of the male gaze from Herb Ritts to Tom Cruise via Richard Gere in American Gigolo are fascinating and can be traced through to Ellis's own work in American Psycho yet its the rants about social media, Charlie Sheen, and modern day reputation management that really dominate this story. 

Ellis's world is divided into 'Empire' and 'Post Empire' to describe the two distinct periods in US society following WWI and then in the aftermath of 9/11 yet these themes are not explored enough in White to make any real sense.

Bret Easton Ellis has no trouble in sharing his opinions, see the section around political correctness, even when they seem so contrary to popular ideology but these provocative themes are far better articulated through his fiction. Ellis himself discusses his lack of pace as a writer and his inability to meet his publishers demand for new work. Perhaps a break from social media will do the trick?

Irritating but occasionally brilliant. 3⭐️

White by Bret Easton Ellis published by Picador 288 pages

Looking for reads inspired by Bret Easton Ellis? Check out My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh and Consent by Leo Benedictus

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The Office and Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin

"Widow Miyuki is a feminist icon"

For a novel set in the Japanese Heian Period, some 1000 years ago, this epic historical tale has a refreshingly contemporary view. In fact, what Didier Decoin has created in his protagonist, the widower Miyuki, is a feminist icon who must overcome both physical and social barriers to continue the work of her husband.

Miyuki leaves her village with a mission to deliver prized carp, reared by her departed husband, to the Imperial Palace and the mysterious and secretive Office of Gardens and Ponds. Travelling through the dangerously wild countryside with two enormous barrels of fish was never going to be easy yet Miyuki deals with everything thrown her way with unrelenting courage.

Decoin captures both the authenticity of the historical detail along with the tastes and smells that add a layer of literary depth. The novel is a story about smell from the sour brine of the carp to the ferment of soya bean paste and the rich incense of the palace. These olfactory fragments are a metaphor for the aspects of Miyuki's life that she must face; death, sex and sheer hard work are expressed through the senses. If the novel has any shortcomings it is the awkward sex scenes which are all pretty much avoidable. 

Trying at times, fascinating at others. 3.5⭐️

The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin and translated by Euan Cameron published by MacLehose Press 320 pages

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