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Search tags: Literary-Fiction
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review 2017-08-14 10:10
A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing.
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.  

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review 2017-08-10 00:50
The Heavy Bear - Tim Bowling
Really lovely. Bowling, who is a well-respected poet, brings his talent for writing beautiful sentences to the novel, with delightful results. The story of a man named Tim Bowling (yes, the author names the protagonist after himself) at the author's age (50), questioning meaning as he wanders the streets haunted by the ghosts of the past century, embodied by Buster Keaton and Delmore Schwartz. And a girl. And a monkey. 

You can see what sort of book this is, can't you? 

Now, I'm not entirely sure this book will be for everyone -- it helps to be as big a fan of Buster Keaton as I am since a good deal of the book is a sort of love song to the tragic-faced star of silent films. There is at least as much cultural-commentary as there is plot. Perhaps more. Not to mention Delmore Schwartz (the heavy bear). 

But, if you enjoy a thoughtful, meditative, melancholic and deeply intelligent read, this just might be the book for you.
 
 

 

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review 2017-08-09 23:17
Book 41/100: California by Edan Lupecki
California - Edan Lepucki

This felt more like a novel about a cult that happened to take place in a post-apocalyptic world than a post-apocalyptic novel.

That was OK with me. I like science fiction and fantasy that veers toward the literary, and that is definitely what "California" has going on, using the setting as a backdrop to explore complex human relationships, particularly between the married couple protagonists and the wife's charismatic brother. Still, this was not the sort of "meditation on marriage" that I've heard other reviewers call it; something about Frida and Cal's relationship always felt a little bit flat to me -- I was never fully invested in it. I was far more invested in the relationship between Frida, Cal, and Mikey, the charismatic leader of the community they find themselves attempting to be a part of after they have lived on their own in the wilderness for a couple years.

Frida's pregnancy, the inciting incident that convinces her they need to seek a wider community, raised interesting questions about what it means to parent and to plan for a future in a world that is dangerous and uncertain. The resolution to this question was not wholly satisfying. I also could have done with stronger world-building -- I got a sense of what the world was like post-apocalypse, but not exactly what had precipitated it, except something about an oil crisis? But I guess that's par for the course in "literary" science fiction -- it tends to leave the hardcore world-building to the hardcore genre writers.

So that's a fair amount of criticism for a book that I ultimately still gave four stars, but the book, the world, and the character dynamics did hold my interest from beginning to end. Wasn't thrilled with the narration, though, so probably wouldn't recommend the audio version.

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review 2017-07-22 01:28
BE FRANK WITH ME by Julia Claiborn Johnson
Be Frank With Me: A Novel - Julia Claiborne Johnson

Alice is sent by her boss to help M. M. Banning complete her newest novel.  She takes care of Frank, M.M.'s son who loves vintage clothing and old movies.  They have a lot of adventures together.

 

I loved Frank.  He was interesting.  Alice had to adjust much of what she thought and did while with Frank and Mimi (M.M.)  She thought one way but found out her boss did not necessarily mean what she thought.  There are at least two different ways to take what is said and done by the characters in this book.  Alice was a linear thinker at the beginning then started to see and think like Frank. 

 

The ending seemed incomplete to me.  I know it's done so the reader can decide how the story does end.  But like the rest of the book there are so many endings that could be done here.  I want to know how the author sees it so I can agree or disagree with her.

 

I'm glad I read this.  I did not find it funny (like the quote on the front cover said) but moving and sad.  It made me stop at times to see where Frank was headed with his thoughts and action.  I also wondered who was actually the adult--Frank, Alice, Mimi, Xander (Frank's sometimes male figure.) This is not a book I will soon forget after the cover closes on the story.

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review 2017-07-21 20:29
People of the Whale - Linda Hogan

This is one of those books I'm going to re-read. It's just so RICH. The writing is astounding, and the story is compelling. Such wisdom and healing - wide and deep as the sea, and the whales and the people who live in profound harmony with their environment. 

 

A couple of quotes: "

 

“He wakes up and he is not a halfhearted man and he can’t remember why he wakes this way, except that he hears the sound of birds and it is as if behind the human world something else is taking place. "

 

and: 

 

“Like the water, the earth, the universe, a story is forever unfolding. It floods and erupts. It births new worlds. It is circular as our planet and fluid as the words of the first people who came out from the ocean or out of the cave or down from the sky. Or those who came from a garden where rivers meet and whose god was a tempter to their fall, planning it into their creation along with all the rest.”

 

Marvelous. Hogan is a literary priestess. 

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