fiction

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Book Review

More book club reading. This one was an interesting experience – the author’s intent became obvious to me only after I finished the novel and read the acknowledgements at the back, which recast the whole thing in a very different light. If I remembered my classic Greek literature better, I’d probably have realised sooner that Home Fire is a modern-day retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. This made me understand the author’s story choices better, while also making it easier to pinpoint why, overall, the book didn’t quite work for me. There’s still a lot to like about it – the prose is simple and lucid, it explores the timely topics like terrorism and anti-Muslim attitudes with insight and intelligence, most characters are well-drawn and their wildly different life choices are easy to understand and empathise with. But in the end, it did feel less than the sum of its parts.

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Collected Short Stories Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham – Book Review

I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.

The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

Another one for the book club. I’ve actually read this dystopian novel some years ago, but I was happy to revisit Atwood’s nightmarish yet highly imaginative envisioning of the future where messing with nature comes to a no good, very bad end for the human race.

This is not a spoiler, since the book opens in the post-apocalyptic future where the world’s population has been wiped out, and follows what could be the last human survivor who calls himself Snowman. The only other inhabitants are a mysterious new breed of humans called Children of Crake: physically flawless and beautiful, lacking sexual drive and violent impulses, unable to create art or technology, devoid of envy, anger and existential angst. Despite their reverence for Snowman, his chances of survival look pretty grim, with the dwindling supplies and no real weapon to protect himself against the genetically engineered animals now running amok (including some nasty mutant pigs you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark narrow alley).

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Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai – Book Review

I’ve resolved not to buy any more clothes from the second-hand stores to prevent the wardrobe explosion, but I can’t stop buying really cheap books! I very much enjoyed this charming, off-kilter first novel from the Indian author who later won the 2006 Man Booker Prize with The Inheritance of Loss, about a young morose slacker who leaves his home town to take up residence in a guava tree, and becomes an accidental guru. Hilarity and chaos ensue.

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Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter – Book Review

Another book club read, this time a crime novel by an author with a perfect crime writer name (imagine if she wrote romance instead; Forbidden Love, a new luscious bodice-ripper from Karin Slaughter).

The book is about a family destroyed by the unsolved disappearance of the eldest daughter, Julia Carroll, who went missing near her University of Georgia dorm when she was 19. Her father Sam became obsessed with his own investigation, retreating from the rest of his family and ignoring his two remaining daughters, and eventually committed suicide. Sam’s anguished diary entries introduce the central mystery, and serve as one of the three points of view used to tell the story.

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Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman – Book Review

Neil Gaiman has become one of my favourite writers over the years and I was happy to get my hands on this latest third collection of short trips into the weird, shadowy country of Gaiman’s mind. It never really occurred to me to compare him to Ray Bradbury, but in fact Gaiman’s short stories have the same effect on me that I had while engrossed in Bradbury’s fiction when a teenager – a pleasantly uneasy sensation of looking at the world in a distorted mirror, or lifting the fabric of reality to find some dark, strange, disturbing things lurking underneath. Gaiman’s imagination is just as boundless, and his voice as a writer is just as distinctive (his books on the whole have a lot more graphic sex, though not in this particular collection).

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Gray Mountain by John Grisham – Book Review

I’ve read quite a few John Grisham legal thrillers over the years. At their best, they’re tightly constructed, entertaining, compulsive page-turners you can’t put down. At their worst, they’re… well like this dud of a book.

It starts off rather promisingly. Our protagonist is Samantha Kofer, a young associate working in commercial real estate who loses her job at New York’s massive law firm after the financial crash of 2008. With hundreds of lawyers left unemployable, even non-paying internship positions are hotly contested, but eventually Samantha finds a pro bono opportunity in small-town Appalachia, where she’s to provide free legal aid to the downtrodden. There she meets Donovan Gray, a fearless lawyer crusading against the Big Coal, companies whose strip mining practices defile the land and poison the local population. Oh and he’s young and handsome too, though an estranged wife and kid put a damper on a potential fling.

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