Archive > July 2011

The Free World

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The Free World , David Bezmozgis, book reviewThe Free World opens in a bustling railway station, Vienna’s Western Terminal, where a family struggles to pack their luggage on to a train. It is the late 1970s, and the Krasnanskys are a family of Latvian Jews on their way to the US, or so they think. Their plans to emigrate to the US fall through and their first taste of life in the capitalist West is 4 months in Italy trying to make other arrangements to move on. Cousin Shura in Chicago can no longer sponsor them to travel to the New World.

This sets the scene for a debut novel which combines witty, sharply observed social comedy, with its characters’ darker secrets.


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Case Histories

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Case Histories , Kate Atkinson, book reviewKate Atkinson is a versatile writer. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Prize and would be considered by many as a modern classic. She subsequently wrote several other novels which would probably be classified as literary fiction, but more recently she has also written several books of crime fiction.

Having read her earlier books, I have been meaning to read the crime fiction for some time. Case Histories was the first of these and introduces Jackson Brodie, a former police officer turned private investigator. The books were televised earlier this year, which has probably introduced Brodie to a much wider audience who will hopefully be encouraged to try her other books.


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The BBC National Short Story Award 2010

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The BBC National Short Story Award 2010, Jon McGregor,  Sarah Hall, David Constantine,  James Naughtie, book review2010 was the fifth year for the BBC National Short Story Award, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes for the genre. The book includes the winning short story, the runner-up and three others. The stories are presented in alphabetical order of the authors, and by coincidence the first one is also the winning one. The authors are all British, but one of the stories is set in Africa. They concern love affairs, family relationships and the plight of a man living alone in an unusual situation.

The collection opens with David Constantine’s “Tea at the Midland”, the winning entry. James Naughtie praises it in part for its brevity; the story is in fact only just over seven pages long, and within these seven pages are just ten paragraphs. I can understand why this was the winner of the ward, even though it wasn’t a story that I personally enjoyed.

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To Prussia with Love

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To Prussia with Love: Misadventures in Rural East Germany,  Roger Boyes, book reviewAlarm bells should have sounded when I picked up Roger Boyes’s “To Prussia with Love” in a bookstore and I thought to myself “this sounds a bit contrived”. Call me naïve but when I browse the travel writing section in Waterstones, I tend to believe that those books are based on the writers’ real life experiences. Not so, it seems; at least not if this book is anything to go by.

It all starts off quite reasonably. Boyes is a British journalist living in Berlin and submitting stories about German life to his editor back in Blighty; rather fortuitously, just as he’s yearning to do something different with his life, his German interior designer girlfriend informs him that she’s inherited a country house, not, as he hopes in rural Italy, but in Brandenburg ( in eastern Germany to most people these days but, as luck would have it for those looking for a catchy title for a book, it used to go by the name of Prussia).


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The Goat, The Sofa and Mr Swami

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The Goat, the Sofa and Mr Swami by  R. ChandrasekarI’m sure that most people probably wouldn’t guess that a book called ‘The Goat, the Sofa and Mr Swami’ is a satirical look at the superficially rather dry topic of Indian politics. Let’s face it, if someone offered you a book about the fictional life of the personal assistant to the Prime Minister, would you really jump up and down shouting “Mine, Mine, Mine” like the seagulls in Finding Nemo? Probably not. That’s a shame because anyone who has even the slightest interest in how Indian politics works would recognize that the fiction is funny but the reality is probably even more bizarre than anything R.Chandrasekar put into his account of a few weeks in the life of the fictional Joint Secretary Swami.


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The English German Girl

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The English German Girl, Jake Wallis Simons, book reviewAnxious to avoid being accused of “bumming a ride on the back of the Holocaust” as he describes it, Jake Wallis Simons, author of “The English German Girl”, writes from the point of view of Rosa Klein who, at the age of fifteen, leaves Berlin on a train bound for England in the hope that, once there, she can find an escape route for the rest of her family. It’s an interesting viewpoint because the subject of the ‘Kindertransports’ is one that’s rarely encountered in fiction, in spite of there being so much literature around the Second World War and the fate of the Jews.

We meet the Klein family in the mid 1930s: father Otto is a successful surgeon who, as the book opens, is summoned to his superior at the hospital to learn that from now on he’ll only be allowed to carry out clerical work. One Saturday morning when Rosa goes alone out to buy pastries for breakfast the assistant in the baker’s shop gives her a pin brooch, a curious thing, with crooked angry looking arms; when her parents see what she’s clutching they tell her she mustn’t go out alone any more.


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Wild Abandon

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Wild Abandon, Joe Dunthorne, book reviewWild Abandon is the second novel by Joe Dunthorne, after the very successful (and funny) Submarine, which was also made into a good independent film. Submarine was about adolescence, and Wild Abandon in part is set in similar territory, reflecting the fact that Dunthorne is still a very young writer.

Wild Abandon is a comic novel set in a commune in South Wales. Kate is the adolescent daughter of the founders and leaders of the commune (Don and Freya), and Albert is her pre-adolescent younger brother.


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Surviving the Stars

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Bombay Duck Is A Fish by  Kanika Dhillon, book reviewSince The Devil Wears Prada there have been lots of struggling to survive in a job, dealing with slimy colleagues and coming to grips with reality novels. Kanika Dhillon’s debut is slightly different because it takes life on the Bollywood film sets in Mumbai as its background.

Neki Brar is a small town girl from North India who is determined not to take up a MNC job but wants instead to make it big in Bollywood. She has Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha as her guide and inspiration in this endeavour. Having reached Mumbai, she, not unsurprisingly, finds that big city morals are very different from small town ones, since one of her roommates sports tattoos, one is openly necking with her boyfriend and the third is a model.

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Broken

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Broken by Karin Fossum, book reviewDeep in the stillness of a remote Norwegian forest, there stands a house with a view over a lake. A quiet queue of people stands at the door to the house, patiently waiting their turn. Old and young, male and female, in small groups or alone, everyone waits silently for the person in the house to answer their unspoken pleas. On the other side of the door there lives an author, a writer whose job it is to tell the tale of each person in the queue. Once a year she invites the next person in line to come into the house and have their story told by her. At the front of the queue tonight is a young woman with a dead baby in her arms, but as the author retires to bed wondering what the woman’s story will be, she is startled to hear the front door open and footsteps hesitantly mount the stairs. A man enters the author’s bedroom and stands at the foot of her bed. He is a socially awkward middle aged man who fears his tale might be too nondescript to tell, and he has jumped the queue to speak to the author directly. After some discussion, the author is drawn into naming this man – Alvar Eide – and to ignoring the young woman who waits outside in favour of writing Alvar’s story.


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A Capital Crime

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Capital Crime by Laura Wilson, book reviewLondon, 1949: DI Ted Stratton sets off with a colleague to look for the bodies of a young mother and her baby daughter. Hours earlier in Wales, John Evans, the woman’s husband and the baby’s father, had walked into a police station in Wales and confessed to the killings. It looks like a straightforward case for Stratton but by the time Evans has been brought back to London he has changed his story, blaming Norman Backhouse, another man living in the same building. In spite of some unanswered questions that make Stratton feel uneasy, Evans is tried and found guilty of the murder of the child, and goes to the gallows continuing to protest his innocence.

Several months later at the house where Evans lived the bodies of several women are found buried in the garden and hidden behind the walls.


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All For You

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All for You , Sheila O'Flanagan, book reviewSheila O’Flanaghan always writes great novels with absorbing story lines and strong characters. Her latest book, ‘All For You‘ has this same winning formula and I did not want to put it down from the moment that I started reading it. It tells the story of two women, Deanna and Lainey Ryan, and explores their somewhat strained mother and daughter relationship.

Lainey is a successful meteorologist and weather presenter whereas her mother Deanna lives in California where she is a prominent feminist fighting for real equality for women. Deanna gave birth to Lainey when only nineteen and knowing that she was not ready for motherhood, especially as the baby’s father had abandoned her, allowed her own parents to bring up her daughter in Ireland while she stayed on in America. On the occasions that they have met over the years they have been more like polite strangers rather than a close family unit.


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From There to Here

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From There to Here: The 2nd Decibel Penguin Prize Anthology: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain, book reviewDecibel was an initiative set up by the Arts Council of England to promote the work and raise the profile of artists of African, Asian, Chinese and Caribbean descent who live in England. In cooperation with the publishers Penguin, a writing prize was set up in 2005 called (not surprisingly) the Decibel Penguin Prize. As well as offering an annual prize for the best novel by a qualifying writer, they organised non-fiction writing competitions, requesting personal accounts of the immigrant experience and gathering the best of them into anthologies.

I’m sure some people will find it ironic (or perhaps amusing depending on their point of view) that the prize fell foul of the Commission for Racial Equality in 2007. The CRE ruled that by restricting the geographic origins of the writers, the prize was – for want of a better adjective – racist. The prize was widened to include ALL writers who are immigrants to Britain and this book – From There to Here – is the second anthology created by Decibel and Penguin and the first that post-dates the change in the rules.


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