Tuesday, October 14, 2008

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This is Danny Scheinmann's debut novel. He has a terrific story to tell. Born in 1896 in Ulanov, a small village close to the Russian border, Moritz Daniecki, at 16 years old, falls in love with Lotte Steinberg; he the son of a cobbler, she the daughter of a wealthy fur-trader. They share one kiss and promise themselves to each other, despite knowing that their circumstances will never permit marriage. When war is declared he is sent to The Front. Finally, after many hardships and great suffering, he is abandoned in Siberia and, with Lotte's memory to sustain him, he begins the long walk home, a journey that will take years and one that will test his courage, his love and his endurance. Wonderful. This story more than stands up for itself, why then muddy the waters with the story of Leo Deakin, a young man who loses the love of his life in a terrible accident while back-packing in South America ? Leo Deakin is not a sympathetic character and I found myself unable to warm towards his tireless self-pity. DS made a mistake in using a parallel story to illustrate the extraordinary events of his grandfather's life because this was the lifeblood of the book and made it worth every moment of the time spent reading it. Again, I think Scheinmann was not best-served by his editor. A good read that could have been better.


HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Lazy journalists are sometimes guilty of not actually going to the event, listening to the play, or even reading the book. I am heartily sick of the 'stunning review' ethos of back cover blurbism. These reviews often end in disappointment and this book is no exception. As a writer, I don't enjoy giving a bad review but 'Half of a Yellow Sun' has to rate as one of the most dull and charmless books I've read in a long time. And I don't give up easily. The book is set in 1960's Nigeria and weaves together the lives of its main protagonists: Ugwu, young houseboy to Odenigbo, a university lecturer and the beautiful Olanna who gives up a life of privilege to be with Odenigbo, and Richard who falls in love with Olanna's twin sister. So far so good. Except it isn't. At the beginning we are led to believe that the professor is white. Then we learn he is black and extremely weird-looking. Ugwu is obsessed with masturbation and throughout the first thirty-one pages references of a sexual nature involving all parties become extremely tedious. I don't know any Nigerians but I now believe them to be peculiar, sex-obsessed beings who speak in a strange, stilted and unconvincing way. The characters lack depth but, worse, we don't like or care about them. Ugwu has little to recommend him, the professor is bizarre in a bad way and Olanna is ... look, I didn't even get as far as Richard or the twin. We are told that Adichie is the author of the best-selling 'Purple Hibiscus' and maybe it was really great. I do hope so. But the old cliché 'everyone has a book in them' may be hackneyed yet it still holds good. To be fair Margaret Forster wrote: 'I wasted the last fifty pages, reading them far too greedily and fast, because I couldn't bear to let go .. magnificent.' I don't like Margaret Forster's books either ....

THE RETURN by Victoria Hislop
Victoria Hislop, we are told, is the bestselling author of 'The Island'. Yes, I did say exactly the same in my review above. Her second book is, according to her publisher, about 'pain and passion at the heart of war-torn Spain'. Sonia, trapped in a loveless marriage decides to go to Granada with her friend Maggie to take Salsa lessons. Neither know anything about the history of the region or about The Spanish Civil War. Where have they been? By chance, she meets a bar owner who just happens to have known her mother. As we move back and forth between the 1930's and the present time, we are given a story that defies belief. Even though we know truth can be stranger than fiction, the storyline simply isn't plausible, unless we're discussing Mills & Boon.
Indirect exposition seems to have passed VH by and her copious use of adjectives and adverbs was annoying. Maggie said confidently, responded Sonia, snapped Maggie, he said bluntly, he interjected, breathlessly, philosophically, rhetorically, teasingly..... open the book at any page and they jump out at you. The dialogue is so bad in parts it's risible. 'The teachers are wonderful' said Maggie. 'They're life-enhancing, aren't they?' agreed Sonia. If you know anyone who speaks like this, drop them. One of my favourites: 'Sonia noticed a picture (of a Semana Santa parade) at the end of the wall. 'They look like the Ku Klux Klan. They're really sinister.' This statement is made by a supposedly educated, intelligent woman who is half Spanish. Again, real people do not speak like this. Why not use the moment to explain about the Nazarenos and their role during Semana Santa? When one of the characters refers to her husband as: ...'him upstairs'., it bears a lamentable association with 'er indoors', and ruins the moment. Hislop repeats herself far too often, sometimes in he same sentence and after Dolores Ibarruri's famous speech 'They shall not pass' we are left with: 'She's inspiring, isn't she?' said Antonio.
Yet Hislop has done her research and sometimes she really gets into her stride and we are caught up in the events of her story but she lacks staying power. Her descriptions of one of the most devastating and disturbing conflicts of all time left me almost indifferent. To be fair I think Miss Hislop has been badly let down by her editor. This book simply isn't good enough to be on a best seller list. Sorry, but there it is.

Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austin Book Club. This book has had extraordinary reviews, including 'dangerously addictive'. The Daily Mail defies us not to 'fall head over heels for this lovely novel'. So, what’s it all about?

In California’s Sacramento Valley, a group of misfits meet once a month to discuss Jane Austen’s novels. The publicity blurb would have us believe they’re ordinary people, neither happy nor unhappy, but all wounded in different ways, all mixed up about their lives and relationships. This is an understatement. If these people are 'ordinary' I'm leaving the planet. 'Ordinary people' these are not. Monthly clubs devoted to book discussion are filled with the lost and the lonely. Trust me. I've been there. It was a close call.

Despite my feelings on the subject, I liked this book. A little slow to start it gained in interest rapidly and I found myself drawn in. Certainly a good read for a rainy afternoon or a holiday. It made me want to re-read Austen – and indeed, although her books are all in print, this small novel has created something of a renaissance – always a good thing.

That's it for this month. In October I shall be reviewing, among others, Alison Weir's 'Innocent Traitor'. I am half way through and am having to limit myself to twenty minutes at a time. One, because it's so beautifully written, with descriptions that evoke all the senses (take note VH) and two, because I can't imagine what will take its place after I've read the last page.

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