Category Archives: fiction

The Sympathizer – fascinating and formidable

I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-feted, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer for a book club, and it did exactly what I think a book-club read should do – it plunged me into a world I might not otherwise have stepped into and left me better off for it. The Guardian’s reviewer notes on the cover that the story “reminded me of how big books can be” and I know what they mean. This is the story of a communist sleeper agent/Vietnamese army captain at the end of the Vietnam War and it traverses the complete range of human emotion – from rage to love, bitter disappointment to surprising soft sweetness, ennui to shuddering terror. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “savagely funny”, which I thought, as I began it, sounded bizarre given the subject matter but it is oddly very funny, which makes the horrifying moments even more hideous. As with horrifying moments in real life they spring as if from nowhere and change the whole landscape of the book’s world in seconds.

Our narrator, a mixed-race ‘bastard’, the son of a Vietnamese teenage girl who loved him beyond measure and a French priest who never even acknowledged him, describes himself often as a “man of two faces…a man with two minds”. He is, he says, for better or for worse “able to see any issue from both sides”. It makes him an accomplished spy, an excellent narrator and a man destined to be alone in a world which always wants you to pick a side and will never trust you until you do (of course, even then, it’s no guarantee of love, happiness or loyalty).

It is a big book, a huge book and it encompasses everything humanity is – hopeful, cruel, brave, foolish, loving and unspeakably awful at times. It’s a fascinating look at power and powerlessness and what these things do to us, what they spawn and how those things then take on lives of their own. It is a unique story, brilliantly written, and it deserves all of its many prizes. It is a formidable debut novel – Viet Thanh Nguyen was clearly born to do this.

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The Secret History – the treat is in the trick

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is ostensibly about a murder at an elite New England college, but unlike your average murder mystery, we find out who did it in the opening pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to how, why and what the consequences have been or indeed will be.

Our narrator Richard Papen arrives at Hampden, Vermont, hoping to escape an drab and enervating suburban life in Plano, California, with his miserable and distant parents, and falls in with an eccentric group of students on an isolated Ancient Greek course, taught by the charming and mysterious Julian Morrow. One of these students, the larger-than-life Bunny Corcoran, is the murder victim and the others, charming twins Charles and Camilla, oddball genius Henry, and vulnerable, quirky Francis, are the murderers.

It’s a long book, but hugely readable – I flew through it in a few days; it was the ideal holiday read. Tartt is a lovely descriptive writer and she conjures the world of Hampden, which she attended as a student herself in the early eighties, beautifully. You can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the snow crunching underfoot.

But the most engaging feature of the book for me was Tartt’s psychological insight. She manages to create a group of selfish, amoral and spoiled characters that you want to see get away with murder. I felt affectionate towards all of them in different ways.  They were so believably human even in their inhumanity – a mirror held up to the darkest corners of selfish human nature.

Despite the fact that the central crime is never a mystery to the reader, there are a number of shocks on the way to the finale that kept me gripped, and a couple of moments where I, along with Richard, realised that I’d been masterfully misdirected by Tartt and her characters. That almost never happens to me. But I was seduced in this case by the charming cloistered world Tartt creates for Richard and for the reader.

It was truly a treat to be tricked by her, and I think The Secret History should be considered a modern classic, a delightful reading experience that is not to be missed.

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The Bricks That Built the Houses – a south London symphony

Carpe Librum: Review: The Bricks That Built the Houses by ...

The Bricks That Built The Houses is the debut novel from South London poet and playwright Kate Tempest. I first came across Tempest through her album Everybody Down, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize and has a lot of the same characters in it as this book. I didn’t enjoy the musical side of the album that much; I wanted to like it more – I thought Tempest was a great storyteller and the album was a great concept piece. So I was excited about the book, especially when I realised it must have somewhat arisen from the album – like she’s been carrying these characters around in her head for at least a few years and is finally ready to tell their stories in full.

The Bricks That Built The Houses did not disappoint. Kate Tempest is an incredible poet, and on every page of this book you know it. Her writing is accessible and beautiful and she makes the familiar world of South London sing. She makes everyday things poignant and special without polishing them up or manipulating the reader. She tugs on your heartstrings without trying. She quite literally draws you pictures with her words. You don’t build the scenes in your imagination – she shows you. Most novels aren’t quite so masterfully controlled by their authors.

The characters in this book are real, engaging, appealing or repellent, and the plot is good (we open with young drug dealers fleeing town with a suitcase full of money). But that’s not what makes it magic. It’s easy to describe writers as insightful, but when you see the gift in its true glory you remember what a rare thing insight really is. My least favourite part of this book was the ending, and I can’t tell if that’s because I didn’t think it measured up to the rest, or because I just didn’t like the fact the book was ending. I want to know what happens next to Becky, Leon, Harry and Pete. And I’m most definitely going to look out Tempest’s current two poetry collections (Everything Speaks In Its Own Way and Hold Your Own) while I wait, impatiently, for her next novel to come out.

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Naive, Super – short and sweet

Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe — Reviews, Discussion ...

Erlend Loe’s strange, sweet debut novel, translated from his native Norwegian starts abruptly. The story of a slightly odd young man, it has a unique voice, a Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time charm; the man quits university, unsure about life and how to live it and visits his brother in New York.

I took the short, squat, satisfyingly small and light paperback around in my back pocket and read it in cafes, and actually I thought it was quite perfect. Nothing much happens in it – action-wise, but it’s simply written, and absorbing. A lovely window into an interesting mind.

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Alone in Berlin – pièce de résistance

There are so many novels set during the Second World War, but most of the ones I’ve come across have been set on the battlefield or have focused on the experiences of soldiers. They’re about war in a way that Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is not. This is a story about civilian life under Hitler’s government – the mistrust between neighbours, the way the Gestapo took advantage of it to find scapegoats, the way sociopaths were given a clear and simple path to social climbing, the way people were no longer left alone to be grumpy or odd or solitary. Everything suspicious, everybody only a few steps away from being thrown in a Gestapo basement for saying the wrong thing, or not saying the right thing, or getting caught in the crossfire of scores that are being settled. Even a Gestapo inspector is not immune from harm, and nor is a famous actor, even if he was once a favourite of Goebbels.

Fallada’s story follows the sudden and unexpected resistance effort of Otto and Anna Quangel, who begin dropping anti-war and anti-Nazi propaganda postcards around the city when their only son is killed at the front. What follows is a fascinating commentary on life under the Third Reich and human impulses, both heartbreakingly noble and depressingly mean and small. I haven’t read anything like it in a long time – a Novel with a capital N, written like a classic, timeless. Although it’s full of little portraits of humanity it also gives you something bigger.

Did you ever see the finale of Band of Brothers? The captured German leader takes a moment to give this moving speech to his men about how they fought bravely together and were brothers, and you catch this glimpse of how, on the ground, both sides were fighting in the same way throughout the war. Just men, trying to look out for each other and not die and get home and see peace. Not desperate to see the extermination of Jews or out for world domination. It’s always a thing isn’t it – people think they would have resisted the Nazis if they’d been alive at the time, but statistically very few would. They would have got swept along with the tide of fear and Fallada does a very good, very quiet job of helping you understand that. The Quangels’ resistance is tiny, almost certainly futile and yet the likely consequences are catastrophic. Fallada explores both sides of that coin in a novel that is fascinating, deeply moving and will probably echo in your mind a long time after you finish it.

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The Glorious Heresies – into the underbelly

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies was bought for me by a friend who has excellent taste in books (she once lent me Alan Warner’s magnificent book The Sopranos), so I suspected I would be in for a treat. The novel is set in Cork and the city looms large here with its brooding skies and dark corners, almost like it’s a character itself and, to be honest, not a particularly savoury one. We follow the stories of teenage dealer Ryan with his violent and yet strangely feeble alcoholic father Tony, and his beautiful girlfriend Karine, underworld boss Jimmy, his crazy mother Maureen, local creep Tara, drug-addicted prostitute Georgie and her boyfriend of convenience Robbie, who kicks off the action when he is killed in a moment of panic by Maureen, when he breaks into her house (which used to be a brothel run by Maureen’s son and where Georgie used to work). Robbie was trying, in a moment of dumb romance, to rescue an old trinket of Georgie’s.

The stories of all of these characters converge, then, in this seemingly small world that is Cork’s seething underbelly. Tony, a childhood friend of Jimmy’s, is drafted in to help dispose of Robbie’s body, Georgie is introduced to Ryan by Tara when she needs to score drugs to get back out there on the game after Robbie’s sudden disappearance and so on. It’s like a patchwork quilt of misery and yet the poetry of McInerney’s writing and the thoughtful rendering of her characters’ inner lives lifts it well above this. None of them is ever reduced to a comfortable stereotype.

Looking back on those lives at the end is like looking back on life itself. A series of events, albeit more chaotic and dramatic than the events in many people’s lives (although hardly fantastical, plenty of people do find themselves in these predicaments) has unfolded and stitched together a story that at the outset couldn’t be predicted, and yet now seems grimly ordained. Of course that’s how it would end, you think, isn’t that always the way? That is McInerney’s real skill. She weaves together a complicated tapestry and makes it feel simple. She takes the mundane and makes it heartbreaking. She takes what is dark and rainy and sad and elevates it, making it something to really notice and feel.

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The Orphan Train – survival lit

It took me a while to take The Orphan Train down from my TBR shelf because the cover, with the little girl staring gloomily out of a train carriage window, said ‘misery lit’ to me. But Christina Baker Kline’s story actually came as a pleasant surprise and I rattled through it in just a few days.

The book begins with Niamh Power and her family leaving poverty in Ireland for a better life in New York City, but between her dad’s drinking, her mum’s moods and the fact that there’s too many kids and too little money, it’s already starting to look like things won’t be much better in the new world. That’s even before the fire in the tenement building that leaves nine-year-old Niamh an orphan, alone in the world in 1929. Niamh is put on a train to the Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society to seek her fortune with a new family; the likelihood at her age seems to be that she’ll be more of an indentured servant than a beloved adoptee – but alternative options are scarce.

Meanwhile, in present-day Maine, troubled teen Molly is at odds with her unsuitable foster family and faces a spell in juvenile detention if she can’t complete the hours of community service she owes for stealing a book from the local library. She ends up on the doorstep of a ninety-one-year-old woman – her task is to help Vivian (née Niamh) clean out her junk-filled attic, and an unlikely friendship and the revelation of all kinds of secrets ensues…

Vivian’s life story is fascinating – from the Orphan Train experience itself (these trains were real and ran for over seventy years from East Coast cities to the rural Midwest, taking some 100,000 children to new and uncertain futures) to her various foster placements, the kindnesses and much more often the ill treatment she experiences along the way, as well as her life as a young adult making her way in the world: small triumphs, big disasters, war, love, loss.

Molly’s story grabbed me less – to me she always felt a bit like the scaffolding for Vivian’s story – your basic troubled teen with a good heart and, at last, a chance to prove herself, but that was fine, her parts weren’t intrusive or overlong.

All in all, this is an absorbing and well-written book, and it deals with the depressing things that happen to Vivian with the old lady’s characteristic matter-of-factness, without sliding into the maudlin. Things got tied up a bit too neatly sometimes for my personal taste, which took away from the sense of realism and made me remember that I was reading someone’s work of fiction, that I was being moved through a story arc, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. You wouldn’t have to be an avid reader to appreciate or race through this book. I’m not surprised it was a bestseller and I can see it being a huge book club favourite.


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We Had It So Good – the origami of ordinary life

I loved Linda Grant’s magnificent The Clothes On Their Backs, which I reviewed here a while back, so I was excited to get my hands on We Had It So Good. I took it down from my shelf as a treat after a long, hard read and I’m pleased to report that it did not disappoint.

I don’t know if you can call someone your favourite author after you’ve only read two of their books, but I will say that I LOVE Linda Grant. This book is about Stephen, the Californian son of Cuban and Polish immigrants, a promising scientist who sails to Oxford on a seaman’s ticket to take up his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. It is here that he meets his future wife, Andrea, with her bad teeth and pre-Raphaelite plumpness, her desolate childhood and an apparent softness that belies her ruthlessly determined core. And then there is Grace, beautiful, infuriating Grace with her promise of trouble and her dark secret.

I won’t say any more about the plot because the deliciousness of Grant’s writing is unfolding all the twists and turns of her characters’ lives like you’re dismantling a beautiful origami swam. Or rather like you’re dissecting a laboratory frog (if you’re not squeamish about that sort of thing) and marvelling at all the intricate workings that make a creature tick, that make a life, that mesh lives together. The coincidences, the turns this way or that way, the hidden genetic codes that tick away unknown inside us and explode when we least expect it.

Linda Grant is a genius at writing the human condition. Her characters are memorable, flawed, real. You root for some even as they frustrate you. You see yourself in others you couldn’t fathom at first, as their life takes an unexpected turn and they reveal a new side of themselves. She makes you remember that disaster can lurk around the corner of even the happiest lives – and not big dramas either necessarily, but the kind that touch everyone at some point. And that equally the passage of time can forge wonderful new things in people that might not have been predicted, either by themselves or by others.

I could go on and on and on and on about this but I will leave you here. Reading Linda Grant’s books is like watching real people’s lives. If you trace them back you can see how they came to be, but as time marches on, all you can do is marvel at the juicy, mesmerising, heartbreaking and heartwarming human surprise as it unfolds.


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The Keeper of Lost Things – one for the people-watchers


Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things was bought for me by my lovely dad. He’s never bought me a book before so this is quite special, and I can see why he thought I’d like it. Not only does it have a pretty cover but it’s about people and their life stories, told through objects of special significance. My dad and I are both interested in people – we’re restaurant eavesdroppers, we take a (hopefully discreet) interest in couples arguing in the street, we’re curious about what people display proudly and what they hide, what they throw away and what they keep. And so it stands to reason that a book about things lost and found would appeal to us both.

Widowed writer Anthony Peardew has spent most of his life collecting other people’s lost objects. Haunted by something precious he once lost, he sets about cataloguing the lost items in the hopes of one day restoring them to their rightful owners and maybe mending a few broken hearts in the process. Now he is in failing health, and so enlists the help of his friend and housekeeper Laura with what has become a truly mammoth task. As she tries to carry out her old friend’s final wishes, Laura begins to recover a few things she thought she’d lost in her own life and makes new connections along the way…

This was a book of two halves for me. I loved the way it delves into the world of the people who’ve lost things, giving us a fascinating snapshot of their lives at the moment of the loss. It’s an omniscient, x-ray kind of eavesdropping! On the other hand, I found the supernatural element a little superfluous and overdone. Unless you’re creating a magical Harry Potter-esque alternate reality, supernatural stuff in books often seems to me to be a bit of a lazy plot device. But that’s just my grumpy old opinion!

I also wasn’t crazy about the relationship that develops between Laura and handsome gardener Freddy. OK, this book is basically quirky chick lit and to be fair it doesn’t pretend to be anything else – but I think it’s time we dispensed with the idea that it’s romantic or appetising when a man who is just a friend goes mental when you go on a date with another man and treats you unpleasantly because of it. Not only does Laura go along with this and accept that it’s somehow her fault for letting him get the wrong end of the stick, but the author implicitly goes along with it as well. Freddy is the fabulous hero and this is just proof of his strong feelings. It’s time we regarded this stuff as dickhead behaviour and stop romanticising the fragile male ego.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Laura’s friendship with Sunshine, the local teenager with Down’s syndrome who befriends her after Anthony’s funeral. Sunshine is a true original, and her unique take on life, the afterlife, human relationships and the English language was the highlight of the book for me. She has a gift for the task in hand, that of reuniting lost objects with owners who want them back (and indeed knowing what is best left alone). She brings forth both the funniest and most poignant moments in the book and elevates it above what it might become with just Laura at the helm.

Sunshine isn’t the only strong character in the book, of course. It is filled with fascinating portraits of other people’s worlds, their pain, their unexpected loves and moments of serendipity. And actually, though the spooky happenings in the book sometimes jarred me along the way, they helped the book build to a crescendo that was actually very sweet and human, and both funny and life-affirming. All’s well that ends well, eh?

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – just to the left of the action


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was lent to me by Mr Literary Kitty at a weak moment in my life when I wanted something ‘that’s easy to read and where nothing bad happens’. Well, it was easy to read; Karen Joy Fowler’s style is accessible and engaging, but I think Mr LK’s definition of bad things and mine must be different.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book as some elements of it hinge on surprise and I, having read nothing about the book in the run up and not even having bothered to read the blurb, was surprised by them. Reading the book that way made me look at the narrative in a new light, as per Fowler’s intentions, and I don’t want to deprive you of that if you haven’t already had things spoiled for you by a Chatty Cathy.

But I will say that I found some elements of this book quite depressing. Our narrator Rosemary is a solitary college student who has never quite fitted in for reasons that become clearer later on. Her father is a miserable bore, a scientist and, periodically, a drunk. Her mother seems to have been swallowed whole by a family tragedy or two some way back and is now a shadowy husk of her former self. Rosemary’s ostensible family home sounds like a creepily airless mausoleum – no wonder she isn’t keen to visit. But college doesn’t seem much of an escape, especially since it is the desperation to hold onto one of the ghosts of her past that convinced her to enrol here in the first place.

One day in the college cafeteria, Rosemary meets Harlow, a captivating apparent madwoman, who is smashing crockery around a man who is trying to break up with her, and she feels for the first time since her childhood that she might have found her other half, someone she can be herself around. Of course, Harlow sets the reader’s spider senses tingling. This self-absorbed handful is surely going to be the next disaster to befall Rosemary…isn’t she?

Despite the pervasive sadness at the heart of this book, it’s not all doom and gloom and the subject matter is extremely interesting. Fowler is a smart and highly readable author and Rosemary is a quirky narrator with a much more interesting supporting cast. Maybe that’s why the book didn’t really dazzle me like I expected it to. Things happen in Rosemary’s orbit, but not so much to her. She’s always standing side-on to the action, so this story is a little bit muted, a little bit unsatisfactory, like a play where all the real action happens off screen. But who knows. Maybe that’s the only way to tell a story like this. Not everything can go from beginning to middle to end, with a quest completed by a hero along the way. Sometimes you have to just dive in and splash around for a bit. And you could do worse than to do that here.

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