Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review - The Dinner by Herman Koch

My grandfather was Dutch. 

Whenever he finished a good meal he would rest his hands on his belly with great satisfaction and announce, “I’m plofft”. 

After reading The Dinner by Dutch author Herman Koch I, too, was plofft. 

The Dinner is a dark novel that takes place over the course of one evening. 

Two couples meet for dinner in a restaurant. There is underlying tension between them. As the evening transpires, it becomes clear they are here to discuss an unspeakable act committed by their teenage sons. 

But what have their sons done? And what do the two couples plan to do about it? 

I started The Dinner with a set of assumptions. My enjoyment of the book stemmed from the way in which Koch first plays along with those assumptions, then begins to challenge them and eventually turns them on their head. 

Koch writes with the theatre of a waiter making his way around a table, removing the silver cloche from each meal with great flourish. 

As the dinner progresses from aperitif to dessert, he lifts the lid on his characters and the back stories that have led to the evening. 

It will also give parents pause for thought – what would you do if your child committed the unspeakable? 

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review - The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s first novel for adults is as far removed from Harry Potter as you can get.

There’s not a wizard or magic spell in sight.

Set firmly in the world of humans, The Casual Vacancy reveals the ugly side of a cast of characters living in a fictitious English town.

Essentially, it’s a book about not-very-nice people being horrible to each other.

It’s also a story about attitudes towards people who are less fortunate than ourselves.

The novel begins with the death of Pagford parish councillor, Barry Fairbrother.

Barry’s death leaves a vacancy in the local council, calling into question the fate of a local housing trust estate and the families living within it.

The Casual Vacancy has received mixed reviews.

However, despite my dislike of many of the characters, I really enjoyed this book.

Before reading The Casual Vacancy I had watched an interview with JK Rowling in which she revealed her inspiration for writing it:

“We discuss the poor as this faceless, lumpen mass….

“I was one of those people. I know how it feels to be talked about in that way….You lose your individuality.

“For a long time in my head, the novel was called Responsible….I’m very interested in how responsible we are, each of us individually for our own personal happiness [and] how responsible we are towards other people.”


Knowing what Rowling was trying to achieve gave me a greater appreciation for her book.

I also admired her ability to inject humour into a sobering story without detracting from her message.

Rowling has a skill for creating characters with personalities that jump off the page and I liked the way she revealed the inner workings of their minds.

Some were so grotesque as to be quite comical.

At times I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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Happy reading!

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review - Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I felt like a literary detective reading Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. 

I was certain there was more to this book than meets the eye. 

I spent the entire book analysing every character, every conversation and every scene, looking for clues. 

But try as I might, I couldn’t figure out how it was going to end. 

Sweet Tooth tells the story of Serena Frome, a college graduate who joins Britain’s MI5 in the early 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War. 

Serena is sent on a secret mission and begins an affair with the subject of her undercover task. 

It took me a little while to get into this book – the story doesn’t really take off until around 80 pages in. I also didn’t know whether I would recommend it until about 20 pages to the end. 

However, as fans of Atonement will know, Ian McEwan knows how to write a good ending. 

After giving Atonement a five star rating, I’d award Sweet Tooth four stars. 

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review - We The Living by Ayn Rand

I first discovered Ayn Rand's novels while backpacking through Europe with a friend in my early 20s when we found a copy of The Fountainhead in Spain. 

A number of years later I read Atlas Shrugged while holidaying in Vietnam. 

More recently I came across her first novel, We The Living, while travelling through India. 

While it is coincidence that I read all three books while travelling, it is also fitting. Rand wrote fiction to illustrate her own personal philosophy so it's helpful to approach her writing with an open frame of mind.

Rand was born in Russia in the early 1900s. She lived through the Russian Revolution and oppressive conditions of Soviet rule before escaping to America in her early 20s. 

Her subsequent and fierce anti-collectivist stance is reflected in all of her books. 

Of Rand’s three novels, Atlas Shrugged (first published in 1957) is the best, although at more than 1000 pages it's not for the faint hearted. 

We The Living is an easier (and shorter) read and I liked the characters more. 

First published in 1936, it tells the story of a young woman, Kira, and her struggle against communist rule in 1920s Soviet Russia. 

Rand wrote We The Living at a time when the western world was oblivious to hunger and oppression in Russia and the communist movement was starting to gather pace in America. 

It’s a love story with a twist, as well as a criticism of dictatorships and the nature of collectivist ideals. 

Rand's writing isn't for everyone, but if you read this book and enjoy it, give Atlas Shrugged a go. 

Thank you to Sarah for helping me to discover Ayn Rand in a bookshop in Spain all those years ago. 

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Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review - The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart

Did you know? The Tower of London was once home to a Royal Menagerie of animals including lions, tigers, polar bears, elephants, alligators and kangaroos. 

This piece of trivia inspired Julia Stuart to write The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise (published in the UK under the title Balthazar Jones and The Tower of London). 

This is a lovely little book. 

It tells the story of Balthazar Jones, a Beefeater who lives in the Tower of London with wife Hebe Jones and Mrs Cook, the world’s oldest tortoise. 

Balthazar is tasked with the responsibility of reinstating to the Tower Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Menagerie. Hilarity and calamity ensue. 

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise has a lovable cast of characters. 

Stuart writes with a similar style of humour to Alexander McCall Smith (The 44 Scotland St series and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). 

Despite being set inside the Tower, my favourite parts take place in the London Underground’s Lost Property Office, where Hebe Jones and her colleague Valerie Jennings reunite an intriguing array of objects with their owners. 

Coincidentally enough, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise has inspired its own piece of trivia. It achieved fame and broke into the top 25 of the New York Times hardback fiction list after US President Barack Obama and his family took it on holiday in 2010. 

Would you like to read this book? 

Here’s where you can buy it online: 


Book Depository US 
Book Depository UK 
Fishpond Australia 
Amazon US 
Amazon UK 

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book Review - The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

The End of Everything is a real page turner – I read it in one sitting. 

It’s Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones meets Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones. 

Lizzie and Evie are 13 years old, neighbours and best friends. 

They’re inseparable – until one day Evie goes missing and Lizzie discovers that things aren’t always quite what they seem. 

Be warned – this book’s subject matter is dark and disturbing. 

I felt uncomfortable with certain elements of the story and Abbott’s intentions gave me a sense of unease. 

Despite being narrated by a 13 year-old girl, this is a book for adults, not for teens. 

Would you like to read The End of Everything by Megan Abbott? 

Here’s where you can buy it online: 

Book Depository US 
Book Depository UK  
Fishpond Australia   
Amazon US 
Amazon UK 

*Please note: You won't pay more if you purchase via these links, but they will give me a small referral fee (5%). 



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Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you're looking for a book that will stir up your emotions, read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

This is one of the best books I have ever read.

Set in India during the 1970s it tells the story of a lonely widow, a homesick college student and two tailors seeking work in the city.

Each character is struggling with their own misfortunes, in particular the two tailors whose experiences of hardship and loss are heartbreaking.

A Fine Balance highlights the fine line that exists between hope and despair. It's about love, hope, sorrow and our capacity to pick ourselves up when bad things happen and carry on.

Mistry also provides a fascinating yet unsettling insight into 1970s India including the caste system, slum communities, life as a beggar, widespread corruption and horrendous injustices against some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

While it might sound heavy going, Mistry writes in a manner that very easy to read, tempering sadness and brutality with compassion and humour.

This is a very powerful book and a hauntingly beautiful read.

I read it while I was travelling in India and it had quite a profound effect on me.

One of my favourite characters in the book is Shankar, a homeless beggar with no legs or fingers who gets around on a small wooden platform with wheels. At the same time I was reading about Shankar, I was being approached by beggars on the street just like him. 


The book was a stark reminder that while our backgrounds and life experiences were worlds apart, each beggar had their own hopes, fears and dreams, just like me. 

The distance between us wasn’t so great after all.

Thank you to Matt for recommending this book to me.

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