Compass by Mathias Enard

Compass is one of those novels that requires high levels of engagement, whose scope of knowledge is scintillating and baffling.

Franz, the narrator, is seriously ill. Set in one sleepless night, we follow his thoughts as he contemplates his mortality and his failed loved life. He has had two obsessions in life: the workings of Oriental music within the European tradition – both Europeans using Oriental motifs or Oriental composers working in Europe – and Sarah. Continue reading

The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

After reading We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, I wasn’t sure I’d be tempted to read another novel by Lionel Shriver. I’d found We Need to Talk About Kevin an issues based novel whose characters didn’t quite convince me and I seem to remember feeling mildly unmoved by The Post-Birthday World. Reading The Mandibles brings all the good sides of Lionel Shriver’s fiction – her snappy dialogue, her delight in conflict, her interest in topical issues – and shows them off to their best. My readings of her previous novels feel harsh and I begin to understand what it is that motivates Shriver and what makes her a fascinating writer to read. Being provocative isn’t just about getting people to read your book, it’s about getting people to think and The Mandibles really does get you thinking.

My scepticism of her previous work is one confession over with, the next is that I know very little about economics. Given that The Mandibles is all about the economy on a local and global scale, how it drives all aspects of governance and society, my reading of the novel will undoubtedly be different from someone with sound economic knowledge.

Ok, now I’ve confessed it all, you’ll know where my review is coming from.

The Mandibles are an American family whose head, Great Grand Man, has a fortune (from his forebears) to leave to his children and their children’s children. At the start of the novel his family are living with the knowledge that one day they may receive some of this fortune, though none of them seem to know how much money there really is. Some of children and grandchildren have done well for themselves, some struggle.

Then the dollar collapses.

In one fell swoop the fortune has gone and different echelons of the Mandible family are thrown together in ways they couldn’t have expected. Continue reading

So The Doves by Heidi James and Book Giveaway

Marcus Murray had just completed the scoop of his journalistic career. When his editor suggests he return to Medway, his hometown, to write a story about the body uncovered in the building of the Cross Euro Speed Link, it feels curiously as if he’s being punished. A return home is always difficult, not just because he feels guilty for rarely visiting his mum, but because he can’t help thinking of Melanie, his best friend who disappeared in 1990.

Forced to leave private school for the local comprehensive, it was Melanie who helped Marcus navigate his new world and Marcus idolised her. She seemed fearless to him, moving ‘as if she skipped through the world unchanging, untouched by her environment’ (page 31).  Continue reading

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

Before I talk about the contents, Such Small Hands is a beautiful object. Published by Portobello Books, it is one of those books you want to buy simply to hold. The gorgeous green hardback with gold lettering and a terrifying image of a tiny plastic doll, its relationship to the human form so stylised it looks more like a jelly baby than a girl, is a book lover’s delight. The sense of the uncanny delivered by the cover is exactly what the book explores. What we seem to be on the surface, and what desires writhe within makes a frightening topic, especially when its subjects are all little girls.

Marina was once an ordinary, middle-class child. Then her parents die in a car crash and everything changes. Badly injured from the accident, she isn’t good at talking to the psychologist at the hospital and so she is given a doll to try to get her to confide in something. So the power of the silent, inanimate doll, the observer, is born.

How would this child with such a rich history of experience, both good and traumatic, be accepted in an orphanage of girls who have been living and growing together for years? Continue reading

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

I hate straplines that say a book is heart-wrenching, but The City Always Wins is definitely that. A telling of the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring, after its seeming early success, the novel is full of hope, horror and a painful sense of needing to keep wading on despite the impossibility of fighting those with all the guns (my echo of Macbeth is intentional; it’s as if attempting to change the leadership will always lead to blood and monsters).

Like all summaries, this doesn’t do the novel justice. Mirroring the situation, The City Always Wins is complex, with multiple voices – not just of the central couple, Mariam and Khalil, whose lives we follow – but the voices of the parents of the martyrs killed in the first 18 days and endless tweets and texts, podcasts, snippets of internet and social media that helped to create and fuel the revolution. Indeed modern technology as a tool for connecting disempowered voices is explored. Khalil wonders if there is any point in continuing to use your voice to tell the story of the underdog, if no one is listening. As a founding member of Chaos, a media organisation set up to report and comment on the revolution, another member believes in the importance of telling stories regardless of the numbers of listeners; the stories can always be found if anyone looks for them. Continue reading

Rain Falls on Everyone by Clár Ní Chonghaile

Theo was seven when he was taken from Rwanda and given a new foster family. Plagued by terrible memories of tribal genocide, Theo is given a new chance in Dublin, but as he grows up and falls into selling drugs, he begins to wonder if you can ever escape your past.

The other voice we hear in the novel is Deirdre’s. She is a forty-year-old ex-nurse working in a restaurant, washing dishes. Her husband beats her. Her children test her with their adolescent disaffection.

When Theo starts at the restaurant, working alongside her, they form a surprising friendship, one which helps them face their increasingly entangled and dangerous lives. Continue reading

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman

In the wonderful way that books speak to each other across continents and centuries, Herland is a novel that feels as if it should be compared. A utopian novel first published serially and then in novel form in 1915, Herland speaks directly to a whole area of literature devoted to considering the possibilities of matriarchy, or the balance of gender power in society.

Vandyck Jennings narrates his experiences of adventuring with his two school pals, Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave. Terry is rich and also a chauvinist. Jeff is a doctor, who puts women on a pedestal. Vandyck considers himself a man of science and hence of considered reflection and balance.

On a large scientific expedition – Vandyck doesn’t reveal where – the three of them hear rumours of a female society cut off from the rest of the world by sheer mountains. They get the guide to show them the red and blue river below the mountain and they discover died cloth, evidence of a society far superior (in their opinion) to that to which the guide belongs. They decide to come back and find this women’s world for themselves. Continue reading

Judas by Amos Oz

JudasIt is 1959 in Jerusalem. Shmuel, a university student with a large heart, weak lungs and an unruly beard, decides to give up his studies when his father’s business collapses. Shmuel couldn’t do military service. He has also just lost his girlfriend to her ex, whom she plans to marry. On top of that, his thesis about Jewish views of Jesus, had come to standstill even before his parents’ funds came to an abrupt halt.

Shmuel has come to some kind of hiatus, a threshold in which he has to decide upon a new path.

He thinks of heading off to a newly built town and becoming a night watchman when an advert seeking a companion catches his eye.   Continue reading

Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie

ButterflyFishButterfly Fish is one of those rare books whose raw invention entices you in and cries out for a second reading. There are so many ideas and stories swimming in the novel that it is literally teaming, as if the book had tendrils reaching out from its pages, wiggling at you and reeling you back in, or sending you off down a new tributary of thought.

Joy is the centrepiece of the novel. A British Nigerian born and living in London, Joy loses her sense of gravity when her mother dies. She inherits the diary of her grandfather and a bronze head. In the quest to understand her identity, other stories unfold: we learn about her mother and we follow some of the history of the bronze head that takes us back into the history of the Kingdom of Benin. Continue reading

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

feverdreamFever Dream is the record of the last few memories and thoughts of Amanda as she lies dying. She is extremely worried about her daughter, Nina. Where is she? Is she safe?

The narrative is delivered as a conversation between Amanda and a young boy, David. David is the son of Carla, the elegant woman in gold sandals who lives not far from the holiday home Amanda and Nina are renting. Right from the first day of their stay Carla has stepped one gleaming foot at a time into Amanda and Nina’s life, her son David an ominous presence hovering in the background.

What does Carla want? What happened to her and her son? Continue reading