Elizabeth is Missing

March 17, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Elizabeth is Missing, Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction, Popular Fiction | 2 Comments
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Elizabeth is Missing

Harper Collins 2014


What a treat Elizabeth is Missing is! Author Emma Healey has weaved a dream in which we move with the main protagonist Maud, an elderly lady who is living with ever encroaching dementia, senility or Alzheimer’s (it’s never quite confirmed which and it’s lack of a label doesn’t seem that important a detail either).

Maud’s children are grown, her husband passed away and Maud has carers who come in daily to assist her. Although they help they also display a significant absence of empathy and respect towards Maud, as do many of the other characters. Where others fail in their due process towards Maud, Maud displays great self-respect by constantly reminding everyone that her friend Elizabeth is missing. No matter how many times people tell her to stop or patronise her she doesn’t stop telling everyone and trying to solve the mystery. She upholds her dignity in her pursuit of the truth against the tidal wave of her dementia and the unhelpfulness of everyone else.

The plot is so cleverly woven like a piece of embroidery, flowing from Maud’s recollections of youth to the current day struggles and binds she finds herself in. Stories are layered on top of each other building a platform of truth, however uncomfortable, upon which the seventy year old mystery of why Elizabeth is missing is revealed. A rewarding and evocative novel that I wish I could read again for the first time.

Emma Healey   The book in haiku: Someone is missing, a memory has been lost, now finally truth.

Freedom comes in Time

April 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Freedom, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jonathan Franzen ‘Freedom’ Macmillan, August 2010

The American middle class has been deconstructed and it is fantastic. Believe what you hear about this book Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is a truly great state-of-the-nation, deconstruction of our times,  polemic epic of a novel.

The story explores the public and private life of a middle class american family ‘the Berglunds’ and is electrified with Franzen’s own interest in socio cultural issues such as the post 9/11 economy, nature conservation and overpopulation. This gives the novel it’s serious literary value and the reason why I believe it is becoming so acclaimed.

When the novel opens the parents in this family saga aren’t doing well. She is drinking, he is working for a corrupt coal company and they have greatly drifted apart.  Each family member has ideas of reality, entitlement, love, morality and general life expectations that mostly are disappointed. A lot of novels look at these ideas too but Franzen couples them with global issues, hot american topics and ethical conflicts (at one stage father and son, Frank and Joey, become embroiled with a Haliburten like company in a very ill-advised financial pursuit) and these coupled ideas are the tools Franzen uses to dig at and explore middle america with. The socio-cultural aspects of this novel work to create a swinging pendulum of doom that moves in time with the family’s own demise gaining weight with every swing it is a fantastic literary technique reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’.

This family are written in 3D every dimension of them is soaked in detail and their humanity lend’s the story its page turning compulsion. Between them they are vain, self-pitying, passive aggressive, disloyal, unfaithful, uncommunicative, hungry for love, sexually promiscuous, mercenary, angry and vulnerable.  Franzen is a natural writer in showing how they are all these things only in their struggle to find meaning in a cheapened world and the reason that readers like them so much is because they are struggling. They know something is very wrong the world which they don’t accept and all of them are on the quest for transcendence in their own individual ways.

With this novel Franzen is the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King did ten years ago. This is one of the most hyped novels in a long time. It is a fantastically well crafted story but so is Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ and so is Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’. It is unfortunate that this novel has become a little overshadowed by the hype and a precocious side to the success of this novel is now showing with the New York Times describing Franzen’s own comparisons of ‘Freedom’ to ‘War and Peace’ as ‘laughably conceited’.

An unbelievably well executed novel in good company with Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Damon Galgut and Curtis Sittenfeld but I haven’t been carried away with the hype to value it as anything more than this.

Haiku; Will ‘Freedom’ now be the new book club selection for Oprah Winfrey?

Mr Chartwell is dark and deep….

January 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment
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Rebecca Hunt ‘Mr Chartwell’ Penguin Fig Tree, Oct 2010

‘…Churchill wasn’t alone in his bedroom; something else in the dark, a mute bulk in the corner, a massive thing, was watching him with tortured concentration….”you’ve been waiting for me,” said the heartless voice “I could hear you waiting”‘.

Debutant author Rebecca Hunt has imagined a novel as novels should be imagined on a huge emotional scale and conceived by an idea that truly inspired her.

It is a fictional account of Winston Churchill in 1964 who is on the cusp of retiring from his long political career as a Statesman and having lead Britain through the Second World War as Prime Minister. Churchill suffered all his life with depression which he famously referred to as his ‘black dog’.

In this novel Churchill’s depression becomes an anthropomorphic animal. Rebecca Hunt conceives of this black dog as a living breathing revolting creature who walks on its hind legs and talks with seductive passive aggressive cruelty humanized by the name Mr Chartwell. Mr Chartwell takes up residence with the novels other principal character Esther Hammerhans, a quiet Library Clerk whose life becomes intertwined with Churchill’s on the arrival of her new lodger.

This novel is utterly original and tenderly written. Never has such bleak subject matter been elevated to these tactile and poignant heights through writing style in my opinion. I have struggled to find another literary example where an author has conceptualized such a metaphorical state as well as Rebecca Hunt.

Interestingly Winston Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister who has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. For someone who took refuge in the arts from his depression I’m sure Winston Churchill would have approved of this work of fiction.

Haiku; A dark ugly thing, is often mezmerizing, let the black dog in.

Click here to view this book on Penguin Books

* Mr Chartwell was the longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2010



The Good Author

September 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Damon Galgut ‘In A Strange Room’ Atlantic Books April 2010

‘In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.’ The title of this novel and quotation are Damon Gal guts nod to William Faulkner. This is a greatly admirable story for its literary skill and for the story’s ability to drive your thoughts while you read it.

Its’ literary skills alone address the ideas of memory, fiction, travel and self identity. The novel is broken down into three parts called The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian which interestingly have been published as separate stories already in the Paris Review. The lead character is a young man travelling who experiences many profound encounters with fellow travellers on the road affecting him until he returns home a changed man. In The Follower he meets Reiner with whom he travels and hikes across Greece. In The Lover a relationship flourishes in Africa but is neither physically nor emotionally consummated and in The Guardian Damon travels through India with a mentally ill friend under very difficult circumstances.

This novel is brimming with intensity, ideas of home and travel and one man’s relationship with his own peace of mind and at times the consequences of reaching the limits of this peace. I can liken it to a very interesting person articulately expressing the effects other people are having on them, the constraints of lust and love in their life along with their values of home and travelling. It uses the first person slipping into the third person narrative naturally which separates this from a memoir into a work of fiction, exemplifying the idea that memory is no more than fiction.

I think Damon Galgut is a very interesting author, I think he expresses human encounters very acutely and I think he is distinguished because of his command of literary skill.  This is a compelling read and has earned a well deserved place on the short list for the Booker Prize. This novel can’t be put into a box but I would exalt it for Galgut’s writing style. It is an intense read that says so much so simply and it has inspired me to re-read Galgut’s earlier novel ‘The Good Doctor’ (Atlantic books June 2004) I highly recommend it.

Haiku; Memoir or fiction, how to tell the difference? through writing technique.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

Where isolation is beautiful and death delivers transparency…..

August 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

‘Chef’, Jaspreet Singh, Bloomsbury March 2010

The finest fiction takes base human conditions and emotions, chips and sculpts away to reveal what is fine in them. What does this mean? The finest authors, I believe, take the most common emotions known to us all such as guilt, love, hate, boredom, patience and commitment and elevate them by using a story to reveal how uncommon these experiences actually are to us and in the case of this novel how desolation can be movingly beautiful. Jaspreet Singh is a very special author who makes these common human emotions, we all experience in one form or another, into a shared experience through this story that is sharp like a razor.

Chef’ is a novel full of grace and powerful storytelling. A novel where isolation becomes beautiful in its description and in its place in the story both emotionally and geographically. A novel in which death delivers transparency on a life chastened by guilt and moulded by circumstances. How does Jaspreet Singh make this happen? Through sublime storytelling. This is the memory of a life that reveals itself to be a requiem for India and Pakistan.

Kirpal Singh is dying on a train. He is making his way back to a military camp in Kashmir where fourteen years previously he worked as a chef for the General there to cook a final wedding feast for the Generals daughter. He worked in an isolated part of Kashmir flanked by glaciers which are both violently beautiful and physically cruel and become a testament to Kirpal’s own life. He is making sense of his life as he travels on the slow train. He joined the Indian army out of an allegiance to his father who died in the line of duty. During his career Kirpal bears witness to sectarian hatred his life’s story in its own way painting the personalized history of Pakistan and India. He experiences love, learns the art of food and women and experiences relationships that occur outside normal social rhythms.

Duties as a military man are not always easy for Kirpal, carrying out orders he can’t agree with and working with people he doesn’t always understand culminates in Kirpal having to leave Kashmir in a shroud of mystery. Kirpal is a soldier but not of the army he a soldier in his own life.  Jasprett Singh’s writing has earned him several awards and nominations, notably ‘Chef’ was long listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2010. Singh has a PHD in chemical engineering and is a former research scientist living in the Canadian Rockies. With this novel Singh has announced himself as a major literary player. This is extraordinary writing.

Haiku; The border between, India and Pakistan, crossed with princely skill.

Click here to view this book on Bloomsbury.com

The author who disappeared

April 12, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Middle Weight Fiction | 1 Comment

Clare Morrall ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ Sceptre, February 2010

In February 2003 I was blown away by Clare Morrall’s breakthrough novel ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’. It was a superbly crafted, subtle novel. It told the story of Kitty, a diminutive woman, who lives with a condition called synaesthesia through which she sees her emotions in colour. The mysteries of Kitty’s life, in this wonderful novel, explode in what the author was adept to rightly call astonishing splashes of colour. Seven years on in February 2010 I was sadly underwhelmed by Clare’s latest offering ‘The Man Who Disappeared’. The Man Who Disappeared’ is the story of Felix, a husband who abandons his good middle class family and over the course of an unfortunately mundane plot it is revealed he has disappeared due to his involvement in serious money laundering and is on the run from Interpol. There is nothing to hate or like about any of the characters who are diluted and spread bare over the length of the book. There are none of the simmering emotions Clare is renowned for portraying in her novels, no insights into human behaviour, well used language or wildly escalating scenarios as she has provided for us before. Had this novel been by another author who had not received such critical acclaim I would have enjoyed it for what it is; a good yarn and a well enough structured suspense thriller. But it is Clare Morrall’s legacy that overcasts this novel. Clare Morrall was writing novels for twenty years and had manuscripts rejected by almost every publishing house in Britain before a tiny publisher in Birmingham saw the depth of ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ and published it for the then fifty-two year old author. That year ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ was shortlisted for the Booker prize and Morrall took her place among other literary giants on the shortlist including Margaret Atwood, Monica Ali and D.B.C. Pierre (who went onto win the prize).  My admiration for Morall as an author is undiminished as is my admiration for her contribution to literary processes. Unlike Felix the fair-weather husband, I remain loyal, and look foreword to her future writing which I have no doubt will come.

Haiku; Dissapointment comes, in a novel with a red raincoat on the cover.

Click here to view this book on Amazon.co.uk

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