Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington black cover Washington Black [2018] – ★★★ 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, Washington Black has certainly been on many readers’ radar. This is the tale of Washington Black, a young boy who is initially a slave on a plantation in Barbados. This is where we begin the journey: the year is 1830 and the setting is Faith Plantation, Barbados. Young Washington (or Wash) is raised by Big Kit, a female slave, who looks after him. Like the rest, Wash witnesses the death of his old master, and sees how his new master – cruel Erasmus Wilde – takes control of the farm. Wash then becomes an assistant to the eccentric brother of Erasmus – Christopher Wilde or just Titch. What follows is the adventure which Wash never imagined (but we, probably, all did). In fact, as an adventure, the story is predictable, rather boring, at times too unbelievable, and, strangely, unexciting. Edugyan introduced several exciting and even original plot lines (such as scientific endeavours), but all of them are dropped before they are allowed to continue. The characters are rather caricaturish and shallow, and even though the beginning and the writing are strong, the issue is still that there is nothing fresh in this story (it follows a very familiar journey). The author has virtually nothing original or fascinating to add to an already long and established (“done-to-death”) literary theme of slave liberation, and hardship and discrimination experienced by a community outcast living in the early nineteenth century. Continue reading “Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan”

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Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

the book of hidden things cover The Book of Hidden Things [2018] – ★★★★ 

This book is the first English-language novel of an Italian author Francesco Dimitri. It is set in the south of Italy and begins with three friends arriving to a cafe in Casalfranco, Puglia, and missing the fourth person. These guys made a pact when they were young that each year – on 10th June – no matter where they are in their lives they will return to their home town and toast their childhood friendship anew. This year, Fabio, a London photographer, Tony, a Rome surgeon, and Mauro, a lawyer in Milan, miss their leader – Art…well, a genius, a source of all wisdom. Art’s disappearance triggers unpleasant memories in the minds of all three men, and when they find some damning evidence in Art’s house, their worries escalate to a whole new level, making them question their own sense of what is real. This book’s content is a bit disturbing and sometimes graphic, but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. In fact, it was a page-turner for me and I liked the writing style. At the centre of this fast-paced and very atmospheric thriller-story is this claustrophobic mystery, and when we are not getting to the heart of it, we are considering the significance of countryside folklore and nostalgia for the past.  Continue reading “Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri”

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

jonathan strange & mr norrell book coverJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [2004] – ★★★★★

Neil Gaiman called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellthe finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”, and I will agree with him. It is a very long book, but it is totally absorbing from the very first page. The novel begins in autumn 1806 with Mr Segundus, a theoretical magician, wanting to know why there was no more magic done in England. He is a new addition to the society of magicians in York, England. Practical magic has declined in England and there are apparently no practising magicians left in the country. The profession of a practising magician has fallen in reputation, and Mr Segundus comes to inquire of another magician who lives in Yorkshire why this is the case. He finds, however, that not only the reclusive Mr Norrell has an established library filled with rare books on the practice of magic, he also claims to be a practising magician himself! Mr Norrell soon desires to establish himself as the only practising magician in the country. The episodic-in-nature plot is delightful to read, and, in style, it reminds of Dickens’s Bleak House [1853]. Delving into the British folklore, Clarke opens up a fascinating magical world, which you will not want to leave, and takes her task quite seriously. Inside the book, one will find a gripping adventure-mystery, great characterisation, unforgettable atmosphere, humorous sequences, and the masterful use of the language. The book’s story, format, style and language all give the impression as though the book was written back when it was set – in the 19th century. In sum, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite brilliant in every respect, and I cannot recommend the novel highly enough. As I would like to discuss the book here in some depth, the following review will contain spoilers. Continue reading “Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke”

Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

the hour of the star coverThe Hour of the Star [1977] – ★★★★★ 

This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some physical transformation before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life.  Continue reading “Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector”

Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

the dry cover1The Dry [2016] – ★★★1/2

This bestseller is a debut novel of Jane Harper. It is a murder mystery with two tragedies at the heart of it. The setting is a small town of Kiewarra, Australia that was shaken by the gruesome murders of the Hadler family: Luke, Karen and their son Billy. The official version is that Luke, the father, killed his family before committing suicide. But is this open-and-shut case as straightforward as it seems? Aaron Falk, a police officer in Melbourne, arrives to his native town of Kiewarra for the funeral of his estranged pal Luke, and finds out that there is more to the deaths than first meets the eye. The Dry turns out to be a good, atmospheric book, but not necessarily because of the story. The story is actually quite typical in the genre of “small community” mysteries and not something extraordinary or special at all. What elevates this book above many others is the assured execution of the plot, the particular atmosphere conveyed, as well as some insightful character study. All this provides for an emotional and engaging read. Continue reading “Review: The Dry by Jane Harper”

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist [2014] – ★★

The Miniaturist, “The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller”, has received much praise, but is all the hype justified? The original idea for the book came to the author in Amsterdam, where Burton first saw Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house at the the Rijksmuseum. In her fictional story set in the 1680s, eighteen-year old Nella comes to Amsterdam after her advantageous marriage to an older rich merchant Johannes Brandt. Nella finds out that Johannes lives in a house with his domineering sister Marin, and soon begins to question the security of her husband’s finances. When Johannes gifts Nella a miniature doll house, which is the exact replica of their own home, Nella does not hesitate to ask for services from an elusive miniaturist, leading to unpredictable turns of events. This atmospheric novel is perfectly readable, but it is also too simplistic and melodramatic. Even worse, despite some obvious hints, The Miniaturist does not put its main mystery about the miniaturist or the doll house (the cabinet) at the centre for the readers to uncover; the novel’s male characters are superficial; and its surprises – preposterous. The plot does not go anywhere or reveal anything of substance, and the actions of the characters are as nonsensical as the ending is unsatisfying.  Continue reading “Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton”

Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly Book ReviewA Scanner Darkly [1977] – ★★★★1/2

In this novel by the brilliant science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick the setting is dystopia some time in future and the location is Anaheim, California. Bob Arctor (also known as Fred) is an undercover narcotics agent working for authorities while pretending to be a drug addict. His task is to trace dealers, including his on-off girlfriend Donna, to a source of drug supply. Other major drugs aside, the one drug which really causes havoc in the dystopian future is Substance D, a highly addictive matter, which, in a long-run, causes a strange and irreversible brain damage. Arctor knows all the dangers, but the problem is that no one is immune, and, soon, the undercover agent senses that he has gone too far in his goal to make himself indistinguishable from his drug addict pals. Due to the subject matter, this atmospheric story is far from being a comfortable read, but it is also fair to say that A Scanner Darkly is a philosophically and psychologically insightful work of science fiction with the strong character study at its core, as well as witty dialogues and a powerful message.  Continue reading “Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick”