The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa
Historical , Literature , Review / 07/06/2018

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the great chroniclers of life in South and Central America. This was recognised with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. So it is no surprise that it he has returned to the bad old days of his native Peru for his latest novel The Neighborhood. What is a surprise is the prurient, telenovela, over-the-top style of the plot and the lack of depth to the many characters who circle around the plot. And the feeling that this is a novelist who still has an axe to grind.  The Neighborhood opens in Lima in the 1990s during the second term of president Alberto Fujimori (who defeated Llosa himself in the previous election). Life is tough – people are being kidnapped, there is violence on the streets and the secret police, led by a man known only as The Doctor, are flexing their muscles. As one character observes:  ‘With all these blackouts, bombs, kidnappings and murders every day, who can live peacefully in this city? In this country?‘  All this drives people off the streets, and if Llosa is to be believed, into each other’s beds. The opening scene is one of to wives discovering an attraction to each other and starting a secret affair….

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Literature , Review / 05/06/2018

Tim Winton is back well within his comfort zone in his latest book The Shepherd’s Hut. The book centres around a teenager, Jackson ‘Jaxie’ Clackton, in a voice that is clear, distinct and engaging right from the first page. On that page readers find Jaxie behind the wheel of a car, racing across the salt flats of Western Australia, away from something… towards something else. The book itself is his retelling of how he got there.   Jaxie was and is an abused child who has grown into a damaged teen. His father would drink and beat both him and his mother. That violence translated to his relationships with his peers and his schooling then became a litany of violence and suspension. Then events in town put him on the run. Taking little, Jaxie heads out towards the salt flats on foot. He makes a fair go of life on his own in a small prospector’s hut that he finds but things change when he chances on another loner. Fintan, an ageing priest living in a small hut by the salt pans, takes him in.   Much like other Winton books, the focus of the main part of the narrative is on a mentoring, quasi-parental relationship between the teen and the old man. Jaxie needs to learn…

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years. And he has not lost his touch. Much like his early novels In The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, this is a simply but beautifully told tale full of secrets, revelations and complex characters. Set in Britain in the years after World War II, it explores the secret lives of a people who worked in intelligence during and after that war.   But this is not how it starts. Warlight starts with a killer opening line:   In 1945 our parents went away and left us with two men who may have been criminals.  Nathaniel, the narrator, and his sister Rachel are in their teens and yet their parents leave them in the care of their lodger to go to Singapore. Although it is soon clear to the children that perhaps their mother has not gone with their father after all. They call the man they are left with The Moth and he fills the house with a range of disparate characters. One of these, an ex-boxer known to them only as The Darter, does get the two involved in some vaguely criminal enterprises. This opening has an almost mythic, fairytale feel which then morphs into more of…

Census by Jesse Ball
Literature , Review / 28/05/2018

American author Jesse Ball returns to a more metaphorical and contemplative mode after the more naturalistic and confronting How to Set a Fire and Why. Census, as the foreword explains, is a book written for Ball’s brother, who had Down’s Syndrome and lived to 24. Census reimagines their relationship and in doing so explores the way the world related to his brother.  The man has just found out that he is dying. His wife has already died and their son is in a home. The man was a surgeon but he has decided to throw his former life in and join the Census. This is not a census as we know it. The man’s job is to traverse the county and interrogate every member of the populace. Each person he adds to the census receives a small tattoo on their ribs to prove they have participated.  He takes his son with him on the journey, knowing that this is the last chance they will have to be together before he dies.  Census is a Kafkaesque roadtrip charting their journey north through a series of anonymous towns. From the metropolitan centre of A through increasingly small, cold and desolate towns progressing through the alphabet. As they progress, the two spend time with the inhabitants of the places they visit, learning about their lives and…

Evacuation by Raphael Jerusalmy
Literature , Review / 18/05/2018

Evacuation is the second novel by French/Israeli author Raphaël Jerusalmy. Actually more of a novella, it takes as its background a war in the Middle East and a threat to Tel Aviv that leads to a decision to evacuate the city. The story is narrated after the emergency has ended. Naor, a young filmmaking student is driving his mother from his father’s kibbutz in the north of the country back to Tel Aviv.   The story itself focuses on how Naor, his girlfriend Yaël and his grandfather end up staying in the city after its evacuation. When the busses come, Yaël and Naor’s grandfather simply refuse to leave, the bus departs with all of their belongings and the three set up in an apartment owned by Naor’s friend who is in the army. The narrative then is their exploration and lives in the empty city. Naor, being a filmmaker, starts to make a film of their experience.  There is plenty of post-apocalyptic styling to this tale. The need to live without power or running water, looting local stores for food and clothing, the hint of other “survivors” just out of view, and a constant threat of missile attack. But this is more of a love letter to the city of Tel Aviv as the characters visit famous sights and art galleries. As Naor observes:  It’s true…

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama
Historical , Literature , Review / 30/04/2018

Seventeen is the second novel of Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama to be translated into English. The first, Six Four was a crime story that stretched across a couple of timeframes. Seventeen, originally released in Japan in 2008 under the title Climber’s High also switches between present and past, although this story is much more firmly rooted in the past events. Those past events are based on a real incident – the 1985 crash of JAL flight 123 which killed 520 passengers. At the time, Yokoyama himself was a reporter for a local newspaper and climbed the mountain on which the plane crashed. As with his main character, it took Yokoyama seventeen years to come to terms with his experiences at the time and use them as the basis for this novel. While Yokoyama was an eyewitness of the events in 1985, he sets his novel at a remove from the action. His main character, Yuuzuki, is an old hand reporter at a local newspaper, charged with running the JAL crash editorial desk for the duration of the tragedy. The story itself focusses on the political intrigues and infighting of the staff of the newspaper and how those actions are skewed…

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/04/2018

The Fighter is the follow-up to Michael Farris Smith’s debut Desperation Road, which was longlisted for the UK Crime Writers’ Association 2017 Gold Dagger Award. And it could well have been given the same title as it charts the build-up to the final fight of ageing cage fighter Jack Boucher. It may well also find itself on long and shortlists itself when award season rolls around. Set in a depressed American South, from the opening Smith perfectly captures an air of desperation tinged with hope that somehow always seems to go awry, because life just does not work like that. When the book opens Boucher has just had a big win at the casino and is finally heading to pay off a debt to local loanshark Big Mama Sweet. But that is not his only problem. He also needs to find a much larger amount to pay off the bank and stop his foster mother’s house being sold. But he never gets to Big Mama Sweet and the money goes missing. So Jack has to contemplate going back into the cage. Through all this Jack is self-medicating his constant pain and using a notebook to try and keep track of…

Stranger by David Bergen
Literature , Recommended , Review / 28/03/2018

Award winning Canadian author David Bergen’s new novel Stranger takes readers on an odyssey from Guatemala across borders into the United States. Along the way he looks at issues of Western exploitation, illegal immigration into the US and global inequality. But he does this in the frame of what is often a heartbreaking, beautifully observed tale of a mother’s quest to regain her child. Iso Perdido works at a fertility clinic in Guatemala. Women come from the West for treatment there based on the lake’s supposed powers to promote conception. The clinic is also used as a way of providing unwanted Guatemalan children to wealthy couples who cannot conceive. Iso starts an affair with Eric, one of the (married) doctors at the clinic and becomes pregnant. But before she can do anything about the pregnancy, Eric has a serious accident and is taken by his wife back to the US to recouperate. When her baby is born, the clinic tricks her into selling the baby to the doctor and his family and sends the baby to the US, The rest of the tale is Iso’s journey to the US to infiltrate the gated community in which the doctor and his…

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Fantasy , Historical , Literature , Review / 20/03/2018

In 2014, Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arabic Booker Prize, for Frankenstein in Baghdad. Four years later, the English translation has become available and it reveals a novel worthy of an award. Frankenstein in Baghdad takes Mary Shelley’s familiar horror trope and transplants it to the streets of Baghdad not long after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam in 2003. In doing so, it manages not only to illuminate that period but to create a new, compelling version of a longstanding myth. Unsurprisingly for this era, the book starts with a car bomb: No one saw it coming; it all happened in a fraction of a second. The people who weren’t injured – because they were too far away, or screened by other people’s bodies or behind parked cars, or because they were coming down the side lanes and hadn’t reached the main street when the explosion went off… witnessed the explosion as it engulfed the vehicles and the bodies of the people around them. It cut the electricity and killed birds. Windows were shattered and doors blown in. Cracks appeared in the walls of nearby houses, and…

Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah
Crime , Literature , Review , Thriller / 02/03/2018

Savages – The Wedding is the first book in French author Sabri Louatah’s Saint-Etienne Quartet.  Originally written in 2011, the subject matter is if anything more relevant now than it was then, given the terrorist attacks in France over the last few years. Savages opens on the campaign trail for an Algerian candidate for the French presidency. Idder Chaouch has brought in American campaign advisors to help him turn around a campaign that is potentially sinking. The extended prologue focuses on Chaouch, his family and in particular, his daughter’s tv-star boyfriend Fouad Nerrouche, who is using his star power to boost the campaign. The book then jumps forward to the day before the election and the marriage of Fouad’s brother Slim and charts a growing collision between the personal and the political. Taking his cue from tv programs like The Wire, Louatah ranges across a number of likeable and unsavoury characters, with the real tension building in the background of what is already a fairly heightened situation. But the narrative focus of Savages, if it has one, is Fouad’s cousin Krim. Krim has fallen in with a bad crowd and has found himself out of a job and on the wrong…

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/02/2018

Chloe Benjamin’s new novel The Immortalists is a historical family drama with a conceit at its centre which starts as intriguing, develops as character building and then starts to drag on the whole enterprise. In 1969, four children, ranging in age from thirteen to seven and intrigued by stories running around their neighbourhood go to seek out a local fortune teller. Despite having scraped together their savings the woman, for no fee, purports to tells each of the children the exact date on which they are going to die. This event, and the knowledge it brought, will shape the lives and the decisions of the four and spark a furious internal debate in the novel between fate and free will. Each section of the book focuses on a different one of the children, in age order from youngest to oldest. When his father dies, Simon, seven when he is told his fortune and now fifteen, breaks away from his mother and the expectation that he will take over the family’s New York tailoring business. He runs away with his sister Karla to San Fransisco where he explores his gay identity in the heady days of the late seventies. This is…

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 23/11/2017

Dystopia has a long history in literary fiction. A breakdown in social order, or a reshaping of society, is a useful lens through which we can examine our own society and actions. So it comes as no surprise that Native American author Louise Erdrich is another in a long line of literary writers who have taken on dystopia. The dystopian present creeps up slowly in Future Home of the Living God. The opening passage has narrator Cedar Hawk Springmaker – ‘the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals’ – heading to an Ojibwe reservation to meet her Native American birth-family. She does mention in this opening passage that ‘Our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’ Cedar is four months pregnant but this is a secret that she has kept from her adopted family. Of all the sections of the novel, Erdrich treats those on the Ojibwe reservation with a refreshing naturalism. Cedar arrives to find very few of her preconceptions of her birth family met. While she seems to have a very Native American name, her birth name was Mary Potts. Her mother is welcoming but not apologetic about Cedar’s life and her…

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/11/2017

Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (translated by Darryl Sterk) is only the second of his books to be translate into English. Wu Ming-Yi is a Tawainese author, described as an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist and many of these concerns and interests emerge in The Stolen Bicycle. The Stolen Bicycle is pitched as a companion piece to another book written by the book’s narrator about workers from Taiwan who went to work in Japan building fighter planes during World War 2. He included in that earlier book a scene where an ancient bicycle was left propped against a sign at the entrance to a forest. The narrator thought nothing of it until a reader wrote to him to ask him what happened to the owner of that bike. From this inquiry sprung The Stolen Bicycle, the story of one man’s search for origins of a machine that might have a connection to his missing father. Due to a close family history involving bicycles, used and stolen at various times, the narrator of The Stolen Bicycle, Ch’eng,  is obsessed with the machines. The narrator starts with the various terms for the vehicle – his preference is for the Taiwanese…

All The Galaxies by Philip Miller
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 27/10/2017

All the Galaxies is a book that is hard to categorise. It is an odd mixture of dystopian vision, some light horror with a religious twist, a dark, often satirical, vision of modern media and an investigation of a secular afterlife. If a bookshop needed to pigeonhole, and such a shelf existed, it might best be described as literary speculative fiction.  The book opens with a boy who names himself Tarka. Tarka has died and has found himself on another planet beside his childhood dog, a border terrier named Kim. It turns out that Kim can talk and is to be Tarka’s guide to an afterlife which encompasses ‘all the galaxies’ and their attendant stars and planets. After a while getting used to this idea, Tarka asks Kim if they can go and find his mother who had died years before. The rest of Tarka and Kim’s strange journey across the universe is in pursuit of this goal. There are beautiful descriptions of this secular afterlife:  Tarka looked down. A stream of lights flowed below them, like a river. A pale planet hung in the void like a pebble. The lights flowed, almost parallel to Tarka and Kim, led by a brighter light, and smaller bodies fanned out behind …  What? Tarka said.  Humans – reborn like you, Kim said …  Below, far below, slowly spun the vast dish…

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 03/10/2017

Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time. Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion. The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom…

City of Crows by Chris Womersley
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/09/2017

Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction. His second novel, Bereft was short listed for the Ned Kelly for best crime fiction and while it didn’t win that award it did go on to win a slew of others that year. But Chris was never going to let the trappings of genre (not that either of these two books were classic crime genre) hold him back. Now, with his fourth book, City of Crows, Womersley takes a sharp turn away from anything he has done before. And the results are no less impressive. Set in 17th Century France, City of Crows opens in the village of Saint-Gilles. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children and has a young son surviving when her husband dies of plague. She flees the town with Antoine but he is kidnapped while they are on the road. Charlotte is wounded and in the book’s first detour into the occult, ends up being healed by the local witch. At the same time Adam du Coeuret, a galley slave imprisoned for practicing magic is unexpectedly freed and renames himself Lesage. The two end up travelling together to…

Whipbird by Robert Drew
Literature , Review / 20/09/2017

Robert Drew is one of the great chroniclers of the Australian history and the Australian condition with previous works like The Drowner, The Bodysurfers and Our Sunshine. In Whipbird he takes on the large chunk of recent Australian history and the Australian experience. Based around a family reunion of the descendants of a 15 year old Irish immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, Drew ranges his authorial eye across what Australia has become in the early twenty first century and in some respects how we have arrived here. The Whipbird of the title is a new hobby vineyard, owned by barrister Hugh Cleary and venue for the Cleary family reunion. As the various branches of the family arrive – 1193 out of 2946 possible descendants of the original Conor Cleary – they are given different coloured t-shirts to identify their ancestry and Drew starts to wander among them, the point of view shifting between various family members. Drew focusses in particular on Hugh, his father Mick, brother Simon and sister Thea but also has time for plenty of other side branches of the family. Drew uses his characters to highlight and gently satirise different aspects of the Australian experience. Most…

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill
Crime , Fantasy , Literature , Review / 09/08/2017

Sulari Gentill is best known for her historical crime fiction series starring Roland Sinclair. Set mainly in Australia between the World Wars, Sinclair mixes it with historical figures and solves crimes with the help of a gang of bohemian friends. Crossing the Lines is a long way from Roland Sinclair, a speculative fiction deconstruction of the crime genre and the writing process. But there are echoes of Sinclair as one of the main characters in this book, the crime author Madeleine d’Leon, has a long running historical crime fiction series set in 1916 about a crime solving domestic servant called Veronica Killwilly, and is also trying to break free of the shackles of the expectations that series has created.   So far so meta. And in fact Crossing the Lines is full of meta-moments and situations like this. The premise is that d’Leon feels compelled to write a new crime novel where the main character is a literary fiction author called Ned McGinnity. At the same time, literary fiction author, Ned McGinnity, decides to write his new literary fiction novel about a crime writer called Madeleine d’Leon. Gentill effortlessly segues between these two narratives as they bleed into each other and it is never clear which is  the author and which is the fictional creation (while both are of course both authors and fictional creations).  Neither the crime novel nor the literary fiction novel in this book, taken on…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 03/08/2017

Another day, another apocalypse. In Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, England has been hit with some unspecified catastrophe that involves rising flood waters. The usual post-apocalyptic actions take place: people are evacuated, the military comes out, borders and checkpoints are established. In amongst all of this, the unnamed narrator has her first child, Z, and the story follows Z’s first few years of life in post-disaster Britain.  Megan Hunter’s prose is spare to the point of almost being poetry. Short sentences in short paragraphs, interspersed with quotes. None of the characters have names. This gives a point of difference to a story that has now been told a few too many times. All of the clichés are there – the refugee camps, nasty roadside border guards, saviours with a boat, a short time of salvation on a remote island – but in a poetic form that makes it, to a minor extent, feel new.  The focus of the book is Z’s first few years of life. While growing up in the middle of a crisis, the narrator’s relationship with her son and her observations might well have just been happening in any daycare centre. Z smiles, Z learns how to eat solids,…

When the English Fall by David Williams
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 31/07/2017

After the sturm and drang of books like World War Z and Robopocalypse it seems the quiet apocalypse is becoming the order of the day. Books like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight eschew the cataclysmic to focus more purely on the personal. When the English Fall starts with a bit of a bang (a passenger plane falls from the sky) and there is clearly some violence happening somewhere. But for the most part, things are pretty quiet in rural Pennsylvania. When the English Fall is told as a series of diary entries by an Amish man called Jacob. There is a fairly unnecessary intro by the soldiers or researchers who find the diary at some later time, an open which is never returned to or referred to again and shines no light on the open ending. The English of the title is the description used for anyone who is not Amish so includes their American neighbours. The Amish have lived a devout and simple existence – think the movie Witness – horses and buggies are commonplace, very little machinery is used in their farms and they have guns but they are only used for hunting. So while they are…