fiction

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

ladderOne of the things I think John Boyne gifts to the world with his books is that they are all so different in storyline, but one of the themes that holds the books together is injustice. The victims of the protagonist in this novel, the odious Maurice Swift are treated so unjustly that it is heartbreaking.

Maurice is without moral fibre, you could call him a cold fish, he has no concept that furthering his own life, feathering his next with the ill gotten gains of others is a bad thing. His attitude is one of self serving, graspyness. Maurice is a talentless writer, that is a problem, he has no ideas for stories and therefore must steal them from those he meets, beginning as a young man and carrying on until middle age. He is completely ruthless and leaves the bodies of those who get in the way behind him. Maurice desperately wants a son and when he gets one he is heartless towards him, this seems to be the thing with Maurice, he wants so badly but it is never enough when he gets what he wants.

The structure of this novel is interesting. It is told in part by Maurice’s poor wife, a woman so talented but having to deal with his petty jealousies, his social ineptitudes and the dreadful way he treats her and those people who are admiring of her. Maurice just cannot bear to be out of the limelight. He was shortlisted for The Prize, which we assume is code for the Man Booker, and that was his peak, but even this story is stolen because he is completely without original thought, other than finding crafty ways to steal stories from others. We travel the world with Maurice to Berlin, New York, the Amalfi Coast, various locations in England. Some of the scenes are written so well, I was blown away. The scenes on The Amalfi at Gore Videl’s house were just perfect.

It is hard to read characters so unlikeable yet at the same time you want them to fail, but Maurice is just so dastardly I was completely caught up waiting for his game to be up. The way he does eventually get his comeuppance, as indeed he must, is so well done I was blown away with the cleverness of it.

This is a big sprawley wonderful book, I wait anxiously for a John Boyne to come along and this was in no way disappointing.

Thanks so much to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me access.

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The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

anchorHave you ever seen a more beautiful cover on a book? (It is far more beautiful in person than it looks in the image on here.) The cover is what attracted me to this in the first place, but it is a tale of medieval times and I really like reading about that period of history. I’m so pleased I picked it up. Inside that lush cover is a story of sacrifice. Sarah, a young girl reeling from the grief of her sister’s death and the lascivious advances of the son of the local Lord, decides to become The Anchoress and devote her life to God. The Anchoress lives in a tiny room attached to the church, nobody can see her and her meals, such as they are, are passed through a tiny window to her by her serving maid. She is completely alone in her tiny stone hewn room. Her only contact with the outside is with the visiting priest who is responsible for her and her servants and the occasional visit from a woman or child from the village.

Sarah spends her time praying and doing devotions, her life is quiet and serene but even within the confines of her tiny space there is much to think about and ponder. Sarah has removed herself from the world, yet worldly concerns encroach upon the space. Concerns she discusses with her priest, Father Ranaulf, a serious man who is employed at the priory to write manuscripts. His conversations with Sarah worry him, her concerns for things beyond her walls bother him, he is not a worldly man and he finds her confessions troublesome.

Sarah is tormented by Thomas, who inherits the Manor, he cannot let her go and he instructs Father Ranaulf to make a manuscript on the life of St Margaret. This becomes the rubbing point for her life, her fascination with the life of Margaret, she meditates upon her life and finds so many things disturbing prompting her to have thoughts which challenge her ideas of purity and provoking more questions to the uncomfortable Father Ranaulf.

The book has a meditative feel. As Sarah thinks and prays and gradually comes to terms with her existence, she becomes braver and more able to defend her views while at the same time being so very vulnerable to the whim of the Lord of the Manor. Life progresses very slowly and the outside world intrudes into her world in many ways. This is beautifully written and so beautifully drawn. It is a lovely book.(less)

 

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

timI finished this ages ago but haven’t been up to writing a review, this book left me feeling bereft and empty when it was finished. I’ve had a long and loving relationship with Tim Winton. I hereby admit my love of his beautiful sentences and his descriptions of place and feelings. I love the way he thinks about the tiniest of things, how he notices the sounds and nuances of the land, the birds and the skies. He makes you see the world in a different way and he makes your heart ache for the characters he makes, they are flawed, very bad things happen to them, they do very bad things to other people and yet they are loveable and real.

Jaxie is a hard boy, he is on the run and he heads out into the bush. He is ill prepared for a long stretch in the wilds and suffers terrible thirst and hunger, he has to make decisions about how he will manage his survival. While he travels he mulls over his life, the awful illness and death of his much loved mother, his angry and now dead father. The fact that Jaxie is going to get the blame for his death. He thinks about the love of his life and tries to make his way to her in a town a long distance away. Eventually he comes across a hut with signs of life, living in there is a disgraced priest, Finton MacGillis someone Jaxie cannot trust and who leads a lonely existence in the middle of nowhere. These two will build a relationship based on mutual distrust. They will come to mean something to each other.

This is not for the faint hearted. It is sweary in the extreme, it is tough, brutal and wincingly extreme at times, but it is beautiful. I didn’t want it to end

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

exitwestSo many big themes in such a small book. I completely understand why it is shortlisted for the Booker, it is utterly contemporary and perfect for our times. I found it completely absorbing and it was great company for an afternoon where spring finally sprang and I could luxuriate in in the first really warm day of the season. This is the story of migration, of war looming on the horizon of people’s ordinary lives, of the lack of safe places and the rise of the refugee as a political and social force. I was completely absorbed in the lives of Nadia and Saeed and their quest for a peaceful life with enough resources for them to make a decent life without struggling for every sip of water and bite to eat.

This is also about the pressures on their relationship. Dealing with the guilt of leaving Saeed’s father behind, of being each others only company for extended periods, of the pressure of trying to find a community in a world of strangers and suspicion. It is so clever, politically really interesting, beautifully constructed and totally absorbing. I know lots of people who will love this book.

I found this interview with the author which makes the origins of the story very clear.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old

groenOh this book. It is a week or so since I’ve finished it now and finally I have my thoughts gathered enough to write a little something about it. In short, I really enjoyed it. In length, I thought it was sad and beautiful and funny and sweet. When I first started it I thought it might be a good present for my dad who is nearly aged 83 1/4 years old! As time went on I realised that it might be a bit too close to the bone. Even though there are lots of moments of levity in Hendrik’s life, there is also a lot of dying going on. I guess that is what happens when you reach a ripe old age and so have your friends.

I loved the war of the old people raging against the petty rules and regulations of the rest home, I loved the relationships between the friends, their outings and the sadnesses and challenges of their lives. There are a few times in the story where it drags a little, but a gentle slowness when you are so very old is fine I think. I love the stories of acquiring a mobility scooter, of world politics happening quietly in the background but being completely unimportant in the scheme of these people’s lives. The description of the elderly ladies dressing in their finest and primping every time a new bloke arrives on the scene in the nursing home is spectacularly funny, as is the discussion on womens magazines.

It is a lovely book and I think it will be enjoyed by lots of people for a very long time as it has universal themes. For those who like a sad and beautiful book this is a little gem.

Otherworld by Jason Segel & Kirsten Miller

otherworldI’m always looking for books which the gamer guys, the Ready Player One guys will enjoy, this book fits the bill really well. In the same way as RPO you are immersed in the game with competing with other players. You’ve left your body behind and you are in the virtual reality of a world which feels completely real. It is very cleverly done, scene after scene with a very real feeling, an almost breathless ride, action pushing forward all the time. There is a lot of tension between the characters, mystery and mayhem are all taking place in a breathless rush.

There is such a lot going on that it gets a bit relentless at times. It has a feel of a book which is written for a specific audience and which nails that well, but at the same time there is a slight feeling of emptiness. Maybe the characters could have been developed a bit more. Simon’s obsession at all costs, even to constantly endangering his life for the sake of his friend are at times unbelievable. There is a huge conspiracy, bad doctors and dodgy hospitals all over the place, Simon in in the game and trying to save his friend. There is a lot going on. I got a bit over the relentless struggles inside the game but I can imagine that these would be thrilling for the target audience of teenage boys.

Given it is labelled #1 it is obvious there is going to be another and I’ll definitely be buying this for our library.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me access to this title.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

happinessUsually I reserve the category of favourite for those books which are a clear 5 stars -ooo just thought about that and updated it to 5, and here is why!

This book is a gigantic statement of Indian politics, attitudes and how the influences of the outside world have influenced society in India since the 1980s. It is bigger even than that, it is about the marginalised and the isolated, those who stand up for what they believe in, even being prepared to die for their causes. There are spies, soldiers and politicians and a cast of interesting characters. At times I lost track a little bit of whose story I was reading, but I found it best just to keep on going as things became clear in time.

The structure of the book is varied, the beginning is a story, we meet the wonderful Anjum, born with both male and female genitalia, I spend lots of time hoping we were getting back to Anjum and eventually of course we do, I loved everything about Anjum and wanted an entire novel about just her. But then there were the others, weaving in and out of the story are politicians and rogues the gentle and the violent. There are lists and itineraries and it is a book made up of lots of parts.

To me it felt like Arundhati Roy was writing her impressions of everything that has happened in India in the time since Indira Gandhi was running it. Her observations are definitely personal, this entire book is full of her, to the point where it almost isn’t a novel. It is an observation, a comment. It made me think deeply about society and how technology has changed India, the influences of western culture on India and politics in general. It is a big book which drew me in, confused me and made me think. This is an experience rather than a novel.