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My Reviews

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
 
Informative, Dramatic, Life Changing
superb piece of storytelling

In some ways this is a very old fashioned book. It just tells a straightforward story. No surrealism, no magic realism , no obscure metaphor, just a well spun tale. And it is all the better for it.

What this superbly written book is about is India's State of Emergency in the 1970s, imposed by Indira Gandhi. The situation is described through the lives of four individuals, a widow, two tailors and a student. We see how the political situation affects, and tragically affects the lives of these four people.

A Fine Balance is deeply tragic, it had me close to tears on several occassions, it is also very funny and above all it rings shockingly true to life. The descriptions of poverty and of state brutality are harrowing but the ability of ordinary people to find even a little happiness in the dark is genuinely uplifting

The chief joy of the book is the wide range of characters which do indeed bring to mind Dickens, or indeed the obvious comparison, Vikram Seth.

So in summary, uplifting, harrowing, amusing, touching. Very strongly recommended, I might already have found the best book I'll read this year.

 
Epic, Insightful, Brilliant
perfectly fine for what it is

I bought this on the back of the frankly stunningly good amazon reviews. On the positive side it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp with some entertaining characters and interestingly presented ideas. On the downside it isn't, IMHO the masterpiece some deem it to be.

If you are looking for a book to read on holiday, or on a long journey, I would definitely recommend this book to pass the time. If you are looking for a masterpiece to illuminate the human condition sadly this book isn't it. The characters are too two dimensional, the style too self conciously quirky and the philosphy a disturbing mixture of new age nonsense and Reaganistic individulalism.

The story is that of Alobar and Kudra, ancients who wish to live for ever, of the God Pan, and of a Seattle waitress, and perfumiers in New Orleans and Paris who live with their legacy.

The first two thirds of the book are worthy of four stars, the story cracks along , the characters are engaging, and the ideas entertaining. Sadly the last third is a bit of a mess. Wiggs Dannyboy (the name says it all) is one of the most irritatingly twee characters I've come across for some time, and plot lines are either allowed to peter out, or are tied off with little conviction. The adolescent/male lid-life crisis (probably the same thing) sexulaity is also rather dull.

So, as a piece of light reading, an enjoyable romp, this is perfectly fine and worth reading. More than that it is not.

In a similar vein, certainly to the first two thirds, but to my mind better, are Umberto Eco's "Baudolino" and Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle".

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
 
Dramatic, Interesting, Dark
Intriguing but unoriginal

This book certainly kept me interested and it was a diverting read so at that level it is definitely worth trying. However I have some difficulties with it. Firstly, I am getting a little tired with academics attempting to rewrite the gothic/victorian novel. That has been done, so why not try something new rather than writing a pastiche. Secondly a lot didn't ring true, the way in which Margaret reacts to things seem more driven by the author trying to produce cleverly constructed phrases than by genuinely believable responses. Thirdly the sheer timelessness, the fact that the author obviously tries to avoid tying the book to a particular time becomes rather irritating. One could read a lot of meaning into this but in the end I found it somewaht annoying. That said there are some genuinely intersting characters in Margaret, Aurelius and Vida and the narrative certainly cracks along. In a nutshell, worth a go if you don't expect too much of it.

Saturday by Ian McEwan
 
Slow, Brilliant, Epic
Well written but hopelessly smug

Ian McEwan is a fantastic writer. In his ability to craft a beautiful evocative sentence I would put him ahead of any other current English writer. His talent is in full view in this novel which tells the story of one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon just before the invasion of Iraq. While he goes through a series of everyday events, his past life is sketched out. Early in the day he is involved in a minor traffic accident which nearly culminates in a violent family tragedy in the evening. The theme of violence threatening a comfortable but fragile life is a familar one for McEwan.

The novel has an almost hyper-real feeling. The experiences of the day are described in such detail and with such emotional intensity that it is akin to gazing at an impossibly vivid painting.

So if he is so good, why only three stars ?

To start with I am going to make the most ridiculous, almost heretical comparison. I do not get on with the writing of Dan Brown at all, with one particular dislike being the fact that every character (villains aside) is incredibly talented or (or more frequently "and") good looking. Well here we have a brilliant neurosurgeon, his high flying lawyer wife, his brilliant poet father in law, his equally brilliant poet daughter, and his "drop out" son who left school to become a wonderful blues musician. They are so smug one gets an overwhelming desire to give them a good slap.

Secondly, I don't think the structure really works. The intensity of feeling in a single day is just too much.

Thirdly the fulcrum of the plot, the means by which the family escapes violence, is almost laughable.

Finally the "mature politics" much vaunted by the reviews quoted on the cover strikes me as being a disillusioned liberal pandering to the Daily Mail complete with cheap dig at Tony Blair. It is populist fence sitting.

These sound like damning criticisms, they shouldn't be. The fundamental quality of the writing makes this book well worth reading. It's just than McEwan has written much better novels.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
 
Insightful, Brilliant, Epic
A genuine classic

If the test of a classic is a work of fiction which retains its relevance with the passage of time, Grapes of Wrath is nailed on.

In 1930s America, Tom Joad, newly released from jail for killing in self defence, returns to the family farm to find it empty. He finds out from two acquaintances that they have been driven out of their tenant farm by owners seeking to employ industrial farming methods. They are waiting for him at his uncle's farm, preparing to set out on the long journey from dust bowl Oklahoma, to the seemingly promised land of California. They have been attracted by handbills promising easy work and a prosperous life.

On the journey west along route 66 they meet up with the mass of people driven by similar circumstances and desires. They are faced with unscrupulous salesmen, suspicious locals, and above all family tragedy.

On the journey they hear stories, confirmed when they arrive, that California is not the golden opportunity it seems. The migrant workers are despised by the residents, exploited by landowners, and forced to live in squalid shanty towns. There are moments of hope, the family getting a place on a government run camp with decent facilities, but generally it is a tale of sadness and bitter poverty. Towards the end, the family take up residence in an abandoned boxcar and it feels like a step up.

Eventually Tom is on the run and the family are washed out of the box car.

All in all it sounds like unremitting misery, but it isn't. The indomitable spirit of the Joad family gives a hope that is never fully crushed, and even at its most desperate at the end, there is a moment of enlivening human kindness.

The structure of the book is interesting with two strands interweaving. There is the specific story of the Joads and their very personal struggle, but wrapped around this are chapters describing the general conditions of the migrant workers. This really works, given context to the specific story, and humanity to the general.

Also, I tend to prefer novels with a clean tidy ending, which this book doesn't have. But in this case it is absolutely right, the uncertainty reflecting the uncertainty of the Joads' life.

What makes the Grapes of Wrath truly great is the fact that the key themes remain true. What it says about the interaction of wealth and poverty, about consumerism, and about xenophobia remains true and relevant. In particular the descriptions of the reactions of the Californians to the newcomers could have been written today about migrant workers coming to Britain. Daily Mail leader writers should read this book and hang their heads in shame.

This makes the book sound highly political. It both is and isn't. Clearly it is an extremely angry polemic regarding the state and exploitation of migrant workers. It also tangentially argues for some form of community based collectivism. On the other hand it is not driven by any political theory, specifically it is not the Marxist treatise it has been accused of being. It is driven by concern for humanity and the need to right a wrong, not by any perceived solution.

Finally the book contains some stunningly beautiful writing. The descriptions of the Oklahoma Countryside, of the smells and sounds of the journey and of the characters and their relationships are top notch.

In summary, this is a genuine classic. It is not an easy or comfortable read. It is tough. I can however wholeheartedly recommend it.

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