Monthly Archives: July 2014

THE GIRL WHO SAVED THE KING OF SWEDEN by Jonas Jonasson

the girl who saved the king of sweded by jonas jonasson

I loved The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared so had high hopes for this, by the same author. There’s his trademark quirkiness and the star in this one, like her counterpart the 100 year old man, finds herself meeting the most unlikely people and in the most unlikely of circumstances. I didn’t think it was quite as funny or fresh – and bits of it I skimmed because I just wanted to get them over with – but I did enjoy it and Jonasson’s a real find.

The story is that of South African latrine cleaner, Nombeko, whose remarkable intelligence gets her into – and out of – a variety of scrapes. An unlucky encounter with a drunken nuclear bomb maker is the most defining and ends up taking her to the other side of the world, bomb in tow. So begins several years of trying to dispose of said bomb safely, and during which she is variously thwarted at every turn by republicans, Mossad agents, angry anarchists, ancient baronesses and incompetent receptionists.

Fun, fast moving and at times wicked this is an easy book to read and certainly I’ll be looking out for more from Jonasson.

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SEX AND STRAVINSKY by Barbara Trapido

sex and stravinsky by barbara trapido

A friend introduced me to Barbara Trapido over 20 years ago and I was instantly smitten. Her writing is witty, deft and conjures magic out of the normality of domestic life. She always creates characters that I’d like to meet, could imagine being my friends, or would even like to be – in this instance the brilliant, capable Caroline who meets and falls for Josh in a student house in Oxford and spends her life rising admirably to the challenges created by what turns out to be a mismatch, by a thoroughly unpleasant widow of a mother and by endless penny pinching. The family live on an abandoned red bus where Caroline grows vegetables, transforms second hand shops finds into amazing clothes, curtains and other household textiles, and throws herself enthusiastically into every aspect of raising her daughter, Zoe. There is nothing that Caroline cannot do, or learn how to do from a book, and whilst  dreamy artistic Josh both admires and respects his wife’s prodigious talents, occasionally he and Zoe retreat in the face of them into childishness and make believe for some light relief.

On the other side of the world are a similarly mismatched couple, petite ballet aficionado and author of a successful series of children’s ballet books, Hattie, and her giant South African of a husband, Herman. A successful architect, everything about athletic Herman is big -from his bank balance and his ambition, to his love for his three children, especially youngest daughter Cat whom he spoils rotten. Hattie on the other hand has a difficult relationship with Cat, who around her mother is spiky, miserable and nursing an eating disorder. Hattie herself is an English rose rather than an exotic bloom, and is wilting in the heat of South Africa, despite the enormous shadow created by her husband.

Trapido throws us headlong into these messy lives, which are destined to collide. Hattie is Josh’s first love, so when he travels to Durban for a mime conference he decides to look her up. Hot on his heels is Caroline whose mother has just died, leaving behind evidence of years of treachery and a secret that rocks Caroline’s world. Unable to contact Josh, she heads to South Africa to break the news, stopping off on the way to collect ballet mad and resentful Zoe from a nightmare turned dream french exchange trip. In the whirlwind, Caroline has forgotten to exchange any currency but luckily meets a knight in shining armor at the airport – Herman.

Unbeknownst to one another, Hattie and Josh, and Caroline and Herman, descend on Herman and Hattie’s house, rushing to respond to the screams coming from the refurbished servants quarters at the end of the garden. The source of the screams is Cat, who has become obsessed with her parents’ lodger and has been sneaking into his lodgings, to drool over a collection of art books, symmetrical piles of black and white clothes and a silver desk with pear shaped crystal handles. The lodger is Jack and it turns out his story too is intertwined with all of those that have led us to this point in the novel.

Essentially a book about compromise, parenthood and the formation of relationships, SEX AND STRAVINKSY is riotous at times, sad at others, and always touching, funny and fearless. An unqualified pleasure to read and unqualified pleasure to recommend.

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EYRIE by Tim Winton

eyrie by tim winton

I heard Tim Winton talk about this book at Charleston Literary Festival. I really liked him. He came across as a humble, down to earth Australian, and I enjoyed his reading from the opening scene of the book, in which the main character, Keely, wakes up with a killer hangover and tries to make sense of the huge stain that’s appeared on his living room carpet.

I was therefore a bit disappointed to find that opening scene had been massively edited for the book reading. I felt wrong footed and it took me a while to get into EYRIE  as a result. Once I did I found much to  appreciate, most notably Winton’s use of language, which is remarkable. He’s relentless with it – makes it smack you between the eyes, at times brutally. And that’s very effective at underscoring the pain and the bright glare and the paralysis that Keely feels. So, for example:  Gemma drove fast, spinning him into the roof, his lap, the green furze of the golf links, screaming, slapping his belly, through the cowling of his head. It’s also rare for a writer to so effectively appeal to all the sense to convey such a strong sense of time and place. I particularly liked how often he described smells and the sharp contrast, such as when the train smelled of feet and bubblegum. And the heat. The heat is everywhere. Unbearable, stifling and intensifying the claustrophobia Keely increasingly feels as the story unfolds. Yet for all this, EYRIE left me dissatisfied

It’s a very dark book. Funny at times. Despairing at others. Keeley is a discredited environmental activist, plagued by self loathing, memories of his heroic father, guilt and a divorce. He has truly lost his way and knows as much: it was true his intentions were invariably good. But only when he had them. Some days he struggled to even form intention. Washed up in an ugly breeze block tower of flats, he avoids contacts with his neighbours and where his existence is shaped by encounters with high doses of over the counter drugs. Then he discovers that one of the other inhabitants of his building is Gemma, who Keely knew as a child and who regularly sought refuge from an abusive and violent family. Gemma lives with her grandson, Kai, and Keely immediately connects with the child – he suddenly has something to get up for in the mornings. But this is no simplistic story of redemption. The damage Keely, Kai and Gemma have suffered won’t easily be healed. As the connection between them grows stronger, so too does it pose a growing threat, with violence never very far from the surface.

It has all the makings of a gripping story and in many ways it is. But there’s something missing. In part it’s that the characters themselves are too ill defined. I struggled to get a handle on any of them, perhaps because Keely’s black outs make him such an unreliable narrator. So his relationship with Kai is built around a fear that the kid was enchanted by something obscene and awful, some terrible certainty, yet whilst Kai says some odd things, we are left with the sense that much of it is in Keely’s head. We have no real idea who Kai is and the signs Keely’s reads are often ambivalent. Gemma is similarly nebulous. At times victim and at times arch manipulator, Keely is unsure whether to trust her and I trusted neither of them. The only real certainty in the whole of the book is that Keely is staggering towards something – and that something, however bad it might be, might be better than the father shaped hole in him, hot and deep and realer than any notion he had words for that has come before.

Sure,  things aren’t black and white. Indeed this is at heart of Keely’s condition – he is incapable of working out what to do for the best because there is no black and white choice, so repeatedly does nothing. But whilst that makes for a fascinating portrait of a man, I was hoping for something more evolved, more definitive. EYRIE is so spectacular in so many ways, it promises more and that makes the disappointment all the keener. Oddly enough, the ending is of the sort I usually dislike – abrupt and open ended – but it’s actually one of the best aspects of EYRIE. That’s mainly because it’s true to the rest of the book  – very little seems resolved but anything else would have felt too contrived given that the novel’s trademark is lack of resolution.

Tim Winton himself and his exquisite writing made enough of an impression that I will give his other books ago, but I really hope they deliver more than EYRIE – and I’ll certainly be on my guard against other writers using book readings to falsely advertise their books.

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JENNIFER GOVERNMENT by Max Barry

jennifer government by max barry

“In the future, the world will be run by giant American corporations. Everybody will be so happy, tax free and rich that they will change their names to that of their company.”

So reads the spiel on the back of this well thumbed paperback – it’s a book I must have read upwards of five times since first discovering it a decade or so ago and it still resonates, still says something new to me and still fills me with fear.

John Nike and John Nike want to sell more trainers, so they talk Hack Nike into shooting teenagers, because a product that gets you shot must be really desirable. Hack’s girlfriend, Violet has developed a computer programme that she’s hoping to sell to the highest bidder and which will give the successful owner the chance at global market domination. Unknowingly, Hack and Violet between them trigger a capitalist war that could wipe out the little remaining power held by the privatised state.

However, Jennifer Government, who has a bar code tattooed on her cheek signifying her former corporate loyalty, isn’t prepared to let that happen. Especially as one of the John Nike’s is her ex, the father of her daughter, and possibly the greediest, stupidest, most obnoxious person walking the earth. So police officer Jennifer decides to kick ass, taking on the NRA, McDonald’s, Exxon Mobile, Nike and every other nasty global corporation in the process. Extreme, funny and deeply political, this is a brilliant book for the No Logo generation and a chilling picture of what a world without governments might look like.

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