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by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars The practicalities of race, February 16, 2015
This review is from: Americanah (Paperback)
Let’s start with some big words: “Americanah” has to be one of the best reads I had in recent times. Period.

The author is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who, much like the novel’s main character, divides her time between Nigeria and the US.

The book is about many different topics, although they all somehow intersect with “race”. Two Nigerian sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, move abroad (to the US and UK, respectively)…and then come back, although in different times and following different paths. What happens while they are abroad constitutes the bulk of the narrative: loneliness, sense of dislocation, difficulties with immigration laws and clash of cultures (sometimes to comic effect).

The plot is engaging, the social commentary brilliant, even profound at times, but what makes Adichie shine is how she realistically, and insightfully, recreates the experience of having to find your ground in a completely different country (I suspect many observations stem from personal experience). This novel is not about making big statements about race, it’s about the nitty gritty of actually having to cope with it, on a daily basis.

Highly recommended!

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.51
144 used & new from $10.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A straight story (...or a Murakami version of that), August 25, 2014
“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”is the latest novel by Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most prominent literary sensation and a perennial Nobel candidate.

Fame and literary merits aside, Murakami happens to be one of my favourite writers, with his now third-to-last novel, “Kafka on the shore”, being a personal favourite. It should then come as no surprise that I very much enjoyed his latest effort, although it’s not as good as the aforementioned “Kafka…” or the more recent 1Q84.

"Colorless…" is quite different from most Murakami novels, as the element of "magical realism" which is usually so central is almost absent from the plot. What we get instead is a Japanese "Bildungsroman".

The main character, Tsukuru, is part of a very tight clique of high-school friends. All of them, with the exception of Tsukuru himself, have names that include a colour. While Tsukuru is very much an integral part of the group, he thinks himself bland in comparison to his other friends.

One day, without a word of explanation, he’s expelled from the group and this sudden betrayal will stay with him for many years, well into adulthood.

The novel spins into motion when Tsuruku decides, with some “encouragement”, to contact his long-lost friends and finally discover why he was completely removed from their circle.

While I won’t reveal anything else about the plot and its ending, fans of the writer will surely recognize many of the author’s signature flourishes: the music, the Japanese orderileness, etc.

There are no “two moons in the sky” this time around (and the surreal vibe is definitely toned down) but the novel proves anyway a great read.

by Doug Dorst
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.95
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good mystery novel and an outstanding print artifact, March 9, 2014
This review is from: S. (Hardcover)
S. is a novel by J.J. Abrams, the award-winning filmmaker best known for the Lost tv series.

More remarkably, S. is a brilliant attempt to breath new life into print fiction, a form of entertainment that, as it is well known, has been steadily losing ground to alternative options such as video games, tv series and movies.

It does so by leveraging on a mix of powerful ingredients: the first one is J.J. Abrams himself, a cult name commanding a huge following (read: target). Mind you, here J.J. Abrams’ role is more or less the one he occupied within the Lost franchise: he comes up with the idea and acts as overall showrunner… while the actual writing duties are taken over by one Doug Dorst (this is no Pulitzer-level text but the prose flows nicely and it’s not entirely devoid of subtlety and charm).

The second ingredient, which once again goes back to Mr. Abrams, is the concept itself: inside the slipcase readers will find Ship of Theseus, a book by a fictional author called V.M. Straka. The book is heavily annotated by two, also fictional, scholars that engage in a sort of pre-iMessage back-and-forth among themselves. This second layer is in a fact another narrative that sheds some light over the mystery of who exactly Straka might be. Last but not least we have the translator, whose footnotes add to the overall reading experience.

Basically S. is a cross between Nabokov’s Pale Fire, A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (although it’s not that eerie…nor as good).

Last ingredient, visible at first glance, is the money that obviously went into the project: S. came with its own pre-release trailer (although this is becoming more and more common for big-time publishing events) but, above all, it’s an incredibly beautiful print artifact: pages are faux-aged, annotations look real and the book is filled with a treasure trove of newspaper cuttings, postcards, essay notes and other assorted ephemera (including a map printed on a napkin). Anyone familiar with printing will know that this book, in terms of pure production, must have cost quite a fortune compared to your average hardback.

Expensive…yet this is one of the reasons that might just push fans to buy it.

S. will surely enjoy a well-deserved success (it quickly became a bestseller on Amazon…and that must count for something) but financial figures aside, this is both an engaging read and a collectable delight of a book.

The Luminaries: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)
The Luminaries: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)
by Eleanor Catton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.15
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5.0 out of 5 stars Best novel of 2013., December 22, 2013
Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” is quite possibly the finest novel I read in 2013. There, I wrote it…

At over 800 pages, this mammoth of a book is a glorious feat of storytelling set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Gold Rush. It has all the bells and whistles of a 19th-century novel (including the short introductory summaries given at the start of each chapter) but its structure is far more complex than that.

"The Luminaries" basically follows a stories-within-stories pattern in which the lives of twelve main characters are all intertwined…or so it becomes apparent after a while.

At the heart of the novel lies a mystery but this, alone, wouldn’t be enough to sustain the narrative for half its lenght, were it not for the fantastic writing of Ms. Catton herself (who, at 28 yo, is the youngest novelist ever to be awarded with the Man Booker prize).

The plot is gripping and the cliffhanger ending of each chapter makes the very-much-abused label of “literary page-tuner” definitely apt for once.

Highly recommended! My only complaint is that, due to its utter brilliance, picking this will make the choice of what to read next very difficult indeed.

by Samuel R. Delany
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.51
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Forget about science fiction., June 3, 2013
This review is from: Dhalgren (Paperback)
Described by William Gibson as "a riddle that was never meant to be solved" and "science fiction without either the science part or the fast-moving plot", Dhalgren is first and foremost a difficult novel.

At close to 800 pages, it towers above the reader, offering very little in terms of cheap thrills or the kind of rewards one might legitimately expect from a novel. No background, no explanation about anything, no conventional ending, except for a circular and largely symbolic "new beginning".

The main character is an amnesiac, possibly deranged hobo called "the Kid". He's one of the many characters who end up in Bellona, a bombed-out city in the Midwest where both time and physics behave strangely. No real explanation about what happened to Bellona in the first place is ever provided, we are merely informed that "in the rest of the country things are normal".

The Kid falls in with a gang of Hell's Angels look-alikes called "Scorpions", he falls in love with an equally strange girl, writes some poetry, deals with the local deus ex machina (the kind of character who, in gothic tales, might have presided over the village, living in a creepy castle) and...has a lot of kinky sex, of which the pages of Dhalgren are soaked.

As a metaphor of the '60s, Dhalgren has its own merits and the writing is beautiful, provided you have a thing for modernist techniques. As most books this could easily do with about 200 pages less but this is a minor criticism.

A difficult novel, as I wrote. If you have enough patience, it will also prove quite rewarding.

A Hologram for the King
A Hologram for the King
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.14
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Outsourcing of the American Dream, April 25, 2013
Eggers' latest book is a novel preoccupied with our age. Wealth is shifting from the Old World to BRICS but the tale isn't about GDP figures. Rather, it's an account of a broken man caught in the middle of change...and failing to keep up to speed with it.

Meet Alan Clay, a (formerly) very succesful salesman who sort of incarnated the American Dream (work, sweat, get rich). When the novel starts, we learn that Alan Clay's company went bust and he's now working as a freelance consultant for a big-name IT supplier. Alan is divorced and his financial well-being very much depends on the contract he's trying to secure from Saudi Arabia's King Adbullah.

The King is building a city in the middle of the desert and Alan's client wants to wire it with sci-fi telco solutions, such as the `Hologram' conferencing tool mentioned in the title.

What ensues is a Godot-like tale in which the King refuses to show up and Alan is forced to wait in a tent, along with his team (which doesn't love him either) and a few chance encounters.

Another point of reference would be `Lost in Translation'. The novel is about the same feeling of alienation, which mixes well with the overarching theme, namely, the outsourcing of the American Dream and the subsequent downsizing of the US industrial system.

Eggers treats this weighty subject matter intelligently, injecting some entertaining parts which make light of the situation, although the bitter edge won't be lost on the reader.

The closing chapter, which I obviously cannot describe in very much detail, is the proverbial icing on the cake. With its practical, almost detached tone, it describes Alan's (and, to a large extent, America's) condition better than any long-form journalistic piece could do.

Highly recommended!

2666: A Novel
2666: A Novel
by Roberto Bolaño
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.84
101 used & new from $5.51

5.0 out of 5 stars A masterwork., March 16, 2013
This review is from: 2666: A Novel (Paperback)
Roberto Bolano is widely regarded as the greatest South-American writer of the post-Marquez generation.

He died in 2003, aged only 50, and didn't have what you'd call a "easy life" before that. Bullied at school as a child, he went on to become a vagabond for most of his early adulthood (it's easy to see how he developed a preference for "outsider" characters).

As a militant leftist and money-strapped bohemian he led a chaotic life that entailed, among other things, being imprisoned on suspicion of terrorism after Pinochet's coup. There is also a rumour that he was addicted to heroin, something that could have contributed to his untimely death (by liver failure) years after.

In 1977 he moved to Spain, where he married and supported his family by taking any job that was available, from dishwasher to garbage collector. Bolano wrote mostly poetry but he later decided to devote himself to fiction because he felt responsible for the financial well-being oh his family.

Now, people who start writing novels because of financial concerns aren't usually associated with masterworks, something which makes `2666', a masterwork in the purest sense of the word, all the more astounding.

2666 is an impossibly long, unfinished, novel which absorbed Bolano during his last 5 years of life. It consists of 5 loosely connected "books" (according to the Guardian, a 6th was found in Bolano's paper in 2009) of sprawling, stupefying ambition, "a landmark in what's possible for the novel".

It's so full of ideas, characters and suggestions that, weeks after turning the last page, you will still think of it.

The common thread that links the five "novellas" is a reclusive German writer called Benno von Archimboldi. His life is told in the 5th book.

The first one is about four literarly critics from diffent countries, libidinous and obsessed with precisely the same writer mentioned above. Their search for the Pynchon-like Archimboldi, leads them to the fictional border town of Santa Teresa, in Mexico.

The next two sections, relatively short, deal with two other characters stuck in Santa Teresa. As Williams Skidelsky wrote on `The Observer', these two sections are basically moodpieces that set the scene for the next chapter: "the tone darkens and an atmosphere of menace takes over". This is done in a very subtle way and while the 2nd and 3rd books are probably the least "engaging" in terms of page-turning potential, they are also the one that best highlight Bolano's talent as a writer.

The fourth part is about the Santa Teresa's killings, inspired by the notorious murders of Ciudad Juarez. Its gruesome display of violence and rhytmic listing of the crimes (which are described with foresinc-like precision) make for a near-hypnotic reading experience, one that conveys a neorealist vision of Hell.

Santa Teresa is the physical center of the novel but in his notes Bolano referenced a second, hidden center. As Ignacio Echevarria writes in the afterword, it could be the enigmatic number, 2666, itself, "the date upon the whole novel rests", where all the threads lead, as if in a literary version of perspective.

Maybe the fabled 6th book could have shed some more light on this but rest assured that, even without full completion, 2666 makes for a dizzying literary experience.

The Folly of the World
The Folly of the World
by Jesse Bullington
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.31
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tarantino + Rabelais = Bullington, December 28, 2012
This review is from: The Folly of the World (Paperback)
This is the third novel by Jesse Bullington. I doubt he will ever be heralded as a great writer but he could easily become a cult one, on the strenght of a formula that is just about as weird as it sounds. Think historical fiction mixed with pulp. Think a gory concoction of (gay) sex, liberal doses of graphic violence and a bibliography (sic!) that mentions treatises on medieval denominations and crossbows, just to name a few. Think, in short, about the unholy union of Tarantino's and Rabelais' talents (btw: it was the Guardian who came up with this comparison, as the cover blurb dutifully reports).

"The Folly of the World" takes place in XVth-century Holland, shortly after the infamous "Saint Elizabeth Flood", which basically annihilated tens of villages, forever altering the landscape. In such circumstances, which made beggars of thousands of peasants and nobles alike (not to mention the casualties), one can find opportunities, provided he's ruthless and unscrupled enough. The trio of conspirators which are at the centre of the novel most certainly are: a con man, a killer on the verge of madness and a savage girl who swims like a fish. The trio join efforts in the attempt of recovering a lost fortune but then something goes horribly wrong and...the tale spins forward.

Set against the backdrop of scheming nobles, corrupt militiamen and the desperate populace, "The Folly of the World" is a guilty pleasure starring completely amoral characters who will kill, bribe and otherwise bully their way through life's adventures. Full in equal parts of coarse language (the f*** word is freely dispensed) and over-the-top turns of events, the novel shouldn't be filed under the generic "genre fiction" label as it brims with a wittiness and a sophistication that is more closely associated with higher literature (that...and the fact that Bullington evidently did some serious research previous to writing).

Sinply put, Bulligton is a genre unto itself: fantasy fiction without sword&sorcery bulls***, a language which is both vulgar and stylized and action-packed plots that are both well-researched and pulp-ish.
It's not for everyone but, if you are so inclined, this is something you will read with much gusto!

Lastly, how does this compare to his other previous novels? Well, some reviewers think it's the best one he's written, others will tell you that the formula is starting to wear out... I sit somewhere in between: the novel is a great read but nothing beats the novelty of the debut ("The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart"). You can start from there and then follow-up with both this and "The Enterprise of Death".

One thing is certain, in between other readings I will always find time for this type of fiction.

The Garden of Evening Mists
The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.09
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great plot and lush writing, November 2, 2012
2012 is overflowing with great fiction or, rather, with great novels by authors I love: Murakami, Hilary Mantel, Tom Wolfe and...Tan Twan Eng.

The latter is by far the less known of the pack but, still, he managed to appear twice in the Booker's longlist and once, with this novel, in the shortlist.

A former Malay IP lawyer, Tan Twan Eng is now working full-time as a writer, dividing his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town.

`The Garden of Evening Mists', his second novel, takes more than just one page from the debut: the action is once again set in Malaya, Japanese occupation is still its focal point and, yes, you still have a mysterious Japanese character at the very centre.

At the heart of the novel there is the complex relationship between Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a POW camp, and Aritomo, a Japanese gardener who left his native country after a dispute with Emperor Hirohito and subsequently settled on the lush hills of Malaya, with the purported goal of building a perfect garden.

Although it's too swift to be labelled as a character study, Yun Ling and Aritomo are indeed the centre of the whole tale. Both have secrets, both have a past to reckon with and both have an initial mistrust of the other...than later turns into something else.

Tan Twan Eng's writing is an acquired taste: admittedly, some people have commented negatively on it. I personally think the language is beautiful although I have no qualms saying that it does gear towards the old-fashioned and the ornamental. Descriptive passages are invariably lush and metaphores come aplenty but there is an underlying elegance that cannot be denied.

The book is very informative to us Westerners because it sheds light on a lesser-known part of the world, focusing on both its history (the Japanese occupation, the communist guerrilla) and arts (the Japanese arts of `shakkei' and the practice of `horimomo').

...Add to that the brilliant plot and you have a page-turner, at least as far as I'm concerned!

Flaubert's Parrot
Flaubert's Parrot
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.83
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flaubert, parrots, subjectivism, non-linear storytelling, September 5, 2012
This review is from: Flaubert's Parrot (Paperback)
Julian Barnes is an English writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize I can't remember how many times (he actually won it, once, with his novel "The Sense of an Ending").

He's a keen Francophile and, apparently, his love of France is a mutual one, with many awards to his name and a title, "Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Letters", which I'm sure not many Anglo-Saxons can claim.

Barnes wrote several quasi-mainstream novels but, beware, this isn't one. "Flaubert's Parrot" is in fact a much more complex affair, a literary divertissement testing the boundaries between biography and fiction.

On the surface, "Flaubert's Parrot" is about a retired English doctor obsessed with Gustave Flaubert. This leads him to investigating the mystery surrounding two stuffed parrots, both claiming a role as source of inspiration for one of Flaubert's short stories.

Does this little piece of sleuthing eventually lead to an answer? Hardly the point since Barnes is more concerned with non-linear storytelling and subjectivism.

Early in the novel you will encounter three different chronologies of Flaubert's life: one is very flattering, the second is starkly negative and the third is made of quotations by the man himself. The life recounted is the same, the resulting story altogether different. Many chapters follow, each either employing a different style or switching narrator.

This is a very clever novel and Barnes' talent with words shines throughout its length. Having said this, some of you at this stage might be wondering whether it's an enjoyable one too.

I can only answer from personal taste and my reply is, as it often happens, two-fold: "yes, but don't expect a page-turner".

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