Tag Archives: book review

Read a Book: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

14 Mar

Having consumed an awful lot of Sci Fi and / or Post-Apocalyptic books over the past year – Justin Cronin’s The Passage, John Birmingham’s Without Warning, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City etc etc – I had high expectations for this novel.

 

 

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

 

 

Not only was there the excellent write up in the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” issue, but reviews in such highly regarded papers including the Washington Post and New York Times made Gary Shtyngart’s new novel out to be one of the greatest satirical, sci fi, dystopian novels of recent years.

A quick plot overview also makes this out to be a great read:

Set in a world sometime in the (not too distant) future, main man Lenny Abramov returns to New York City from a sojourn in Rome – back to his job (converting ‘High Net Worth Individuals’ to live forever) while perusing his love for the beautiful Eunice Park.

His is a world where everyone is connected via their äppäräti (like an iPad fueled with Facebook on steroids) and work for multi-merged companies like UnitedContinentalDeltamerica and ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandsViacomCredit. China rules the world, the Yuan is the main currency and  1 Euro is worth $USD8.64.

Overlaying this is Lenny’s flailing attempts to love Eunice, have her love him back, while an impending crisis of astronomical proportions brews towards the inevitable end.

Like Brett Easton Ellis writing for Futurama, this is a fantastically over-the-top novel steeped with enough satirical commentary to salvage it from being a comic book sans the pictures.

One of the oddest, most uncomfortable love stories you’re likely to read, the main issue is that from about a third of the way through, the story get’s stuck in a loop that it struggles to get out of. Like the incesent news feeds on Twitter or Facebook, the noise of the novel is interesting (made up of Instant Messages, Diary Entries and Observations), however it doesn’t push along the plot.

Once escaping, the story gallops towards its exhilarating conclusion, though a good edit would have made this a more excellent rather than okay read.

Robot Rating: 6.5/10

Book #13#50bookchallenge

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Read a Book: One Day by David Nicholls

8 Mar

I’m not usually one for ‘Rom-Com’ type books. Along with ‘Chik-Lit’ and anything to do with Harry Potter – I’m in high level avoidance.

 

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls

 

However – as the person who lent me this one has never been wrong with her recommendations, and with a cover drenched in plaudits from the likes of Nick Hornby

Big, Absorbing, Smart, fantastically readable… brilliant on the details of the last decades of British cultural and political life” and  Marian Keyes

“Incredibly Moving”

I thought I’d give it a go.

Set up to tell the story of Dexter and Emma – starting with a drunken night together at the end of University on July 15 1988 – each chapter is one year later. Throughout the next twenty years we follow Dex and Em as they find love, loose it, struggle with jobs, life and more.

With such a simple formula, this When Harry Met Sally type story could have easily fallen in a heap of clichés, or recalled any movie with Sandra Bullock. Instead Nicholls skirts around the predictable, peppering only when necessary, the bulk of the book an often funny, sometimes painful but always enjoyable exploration of friendship set against the backdrop of British life. 

Robot Rating: 7.5/10

Book #12#50bookchallenge

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Read a Book: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

3 Mar

“Time’s a goon right? Isn’t that the expression?” Jules had drifted over from across the room. “I’ve never heard that… time is a goon?”

A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Apparently so. Which makes Time and the passing of it the very loose theme that loosely weaves this quirky, rock n roll laden book into coherency. Listed time and time again on numerous reviewers’ and authors Top Reads for 2010 (many of them found on the very necessary Book Site The Millions – like here and here ), usually incorporating the words; punk rock, drugs and rock and roll, 1970s music and washed up punk rockers – and the attraction was instant.

Unlike many books that try to set themselves against a backdrop of a nostalgic musical era, The Goon Squad was a compelling, quirky, sometimes uncomfortable read. Structured as a series of short stories, the central characters each have the voice of protagonist, as the story zig zags through time, the speaker’s identity not always immediately clear, clues as to the existence or age of children, state of marriage or mind the indicative clues.

At the centre of this time shifted story is Bennie Salazar, once a 1970s Punk Rocker, in the present, a washed up producer struggling on both the musical and matrimonial front. From there the stories spiral outwards, taking in Sasha – his kleptomaniac assistant, Scotty – the once musically talented, now virtually homeless trash collector, Dolly the tortured publicist, Kitty the B grade celebrity… and the list goes on.

As time lurches backwards and forwards, from the early hay days of playing punk rock and slam dancing, through turbulent twenties and thirties of broken love and friendships, drug and mental abuse through to the misery and acceptance of middle age, we follow and slowly warm to these broken characters as they fight off the tyranny of the inevitable Goon Squad that is time.

With an ending that will please any true music fan, this should get a look in for your top reads of 2011. And if you’re accused of being late to the party – just blame it on the Goon Squad.

“Time’s a Goon right? You gonna let that Goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head “The Goon won”

Robot Rating: 9/10 (and yet another contender for Top 5 Books of the Year)

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Read a Book: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

28 Feb
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant about taking on Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel. Weighing in at over 600 pages, I had flashbacks to the late Nineties as a ploughed through her previous novel The Poisonwood Bible. While I remember enjoying the book – I did find it a test of endurance. 

Her latest novel also threw up early hurdles that I had to consider – mainly that I knew next to nothing about Mexico (where the first half of the novel is set) and even less about the artist Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera (who are pivotal characters throughout the novel).

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Over the first 100 pages, I felt myself loosing the struggle to understand, as the various dated entries noted by a still to be identified narrator skips across a montage of Mexican happenings, and slowly we learn that we are following the novel’s central character Harrison Shephard and his man-hunting mother.

But then in an instant, as Shepherd meets Diego Rivera for the first time, and his relationship with him and Frida unfolds, The Lacuna quickly becomes an addictive, fascinating read – so much so that you’re more than happy to have hundreds of pages to get through.

Plot-wise, the novel follows Harrison Shepherd from 1929 to 1951 from his childhood in Mexico through to his adulthood in the US. The first half of the novel focuses on his time in the Kahlo / Rivera household, and his interactions with the exiled Communist Lev (Leon) Trotsky.

From there we head to the US as Shepherd embarks on a journey as a writer, set against an historical backdrop of WW2, McCarthyism and Communist Paranoia that gripped the US after the War.

While only the keenest of history and art buffs will recognise where fact ends and fiction begins, for the rest of us, even those with virtually no prior knowledge of the period or of the Mexican artists, this should be a fascinating, exhilarating while also an informative read.

Robot Rating: 9/10 (and contender for Top 5 Books of the Year)

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Read a Book: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

19 Feb

Ahhh the News. So controversial, so fascinating, so now. From the satiric novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, to Gonzo writings of Hunter S Thomspon, through to the numerous Murdoch inspired tales, the story of the people behind the stories has always provided for a good plot, mixed with some racy politics. Add to that the incessant chattering about the Death of the Newspaper and the Threat of the Internet on Journalism, and you’ve got a book waiting to happen.

The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists

For London journalist Tom Rachman, it’s these themes, combined with his own journalism background, that has lead to the creation of The Imperfectionists. Set in the newsroom of a small, flailing Italian Newspaper, and flitting between the past (from the 1950s) to the present (2007), the story builds on the standalone stories of each of the people that make up the newspaper.

It’s these characters that make the novel; from the fastidious copy editor, to the green young stringer, the loveless financial officer to the obsessive, slightly manic reader. As each story plays out themes of day to day human suffering (infidelity, broken friendships, lies and loss), the constant sub plot is the incessant demand for deadlines and headlines, and the pressure that falling readership and increasing online competition eventually has on the paper.

More gratifying than gritty or gripping, Rachman’s skills is balancing the stories of human foibles against a world where Saddam Hussein is on a rampage, unrest in Cairo, devastation in Rwanda, and where Britney has shaved her head. With a cracker of a revelation at the end of each chapter, the novel is a blend of newsroom satire and Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch.

Robot Rating: 8/10

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Read a Book: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

14 Feb
A really good science fiction novel should probably make you feel like you’re on some bad trip. Half a drop too much of the brown acid, and you know that the mind altering worlds of Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut are going to make you feel slightly nauseous, but immediately addicted. 

The Gone Away World

The Gone Away World

The same can be said for the relatively new author Nick Harkaway, whose debut novel The Gone-Away World is just as mind bending and queasy as those created by the former authors.

Like any half decent sci-fi novel, this tome (at over 500 pages) isn’t your standard futuristic, robotic infused adventure. Tilt it one way and it’s a boyhood friendship between the nameless protagonist and his childhood buddy Gonzo Lubisch. Tilt it another way, and there’s a pleasing love story narrative. Stare at it front on though and it’s a topsy turvy adventure novel that takes in a plethora of exploits involving characters that range from Pencil Neck Authorities, a Mime Troop, a Nameless Bar Man, a Malevolent Mechanic, a hell like place full of people called K and some giant killer bees.

There are also a lot of Ninja’s. A brilliant amount of Ninja’s! And after reading this, you’re sure that a Ninja would make most books a tad more interesting. As Harkaway  explains on his website “Very few serious books have ninjas. This is one of them. It’s also a comedy, of course, because serious things are funny.”

So what’s the gist of the novel? At it’s core is the global destruction caused by the Gone-Away War, whereby a series of annihilating bombs that make things Go Away have destroyed most forms of human life as we know it, save for pockets of post-apocalyptic survivors.  When the one Pipeline that is the backbone of survival ignites, it sets off a chain of events that involve our nameless hero and his band of renegade trouble shooters.

Harkaway himself admits that his novel is impossible to explain, and quite often you’ll find yourself sinking in a convoluted story of confusing characters and scenes, that are built on a fantastic use of language sans the appropriate amount of coherency. The beauty of this novel is that just as your mind gets ready to explode in confusion, tidbits of information are woven into the confusion, and Harkaway weaves together a satisfying, conclusion to the tale.

Robot Rating: 8.5/10

New words learned while reading this book:

1. “quislings” – traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country.
2. “conurbation” – an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of one or more cities.
3. “seppuku” – ritual form of suicide by disembowelment. Japanese from setsu – to cut and+ fuku – abdomen
4. “guano” – the excrement of seabirds, occurring in thick deposits notably on the islands of Peru and Chile and used as fertiliser.
5. “noosphere” a postulated sphere or stage of evolutionary development dominated by consciousness, the mind and interpersonal relationships.

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Read a Book: The Chocolate Wars

7 Feb
The Chocolate Wars

The Chocolate Wars

In terms of non-fiction books, what could be more delicious than the history of Chocolate? Written by Deborah Cadbury – ancestor of the famous Cadbury conglomerate, the history also takes in such mouthwatering names as Nestle, Mars, Hershey and Lindt.

Starting back in the 1800s, the book’s best parts are about the early years of the Cadbury company – at a time when chocolate was only consumed as a drink, and the first bars were virtually inedible. Formed by two Quaker brothers, much of the early history of Cadbury weaves around the morals and thinking of this simple early Christian organisation, and how its views on poverty and the well being of humans influenced the company’s early days. From enviable working conditions (swimming lessons for staff – at a time when young boys were still being used as human chimney cleaners) and affordable housing estates, to an attack on slavery, there’s much more to Cadbury than the invention of the Creme Egg.

As the history unfolds, we meet other chocolate families from Nestle to Hershey – and the “war” around innovative chocolate production unfurls. It’s about this time where it’s virtually impossible to read a chapter without having to nip off for a Kit Kat or Milky Way.

The final part of the book, as it fast tracks through corporate takeovers, and the inevitable buy out from Kraft, is the least interesting, though essential as it wraps up the story of the makers of the Crunchie, Flake and Picnic Bars.

Robot Rating: 7/10

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