Category Archives: Modern Literature

Last Night in Montreal

by Emily St John Mandel

last night in montrealIn One Night In Montreal, Mandel takes the reader on a rather disturbing but also very intriguing journey. It’s a road trip like no other, as for Lilia, the book’s central character, life on the road, drifting from motel to motel, is simply a way of life. But Lilia is not the only one whose life is changed by the events of that cold winters night. 

Although this is very much Lilia’s story, she is not the only focus of the narrative. In fact, the book follows two different timelines, only one of which features Lilia.

In the present, Lilia has done what she always does – she has moved on. But this time she has left behind someone who is determined to find her if only get an answer to his questions. In this thread of the story, Lilia is something of an intangible being, always just beyond reach, as we follow Eli and Michaela. Both have been profoundly affected by the strange friend and both are seeking answers they believe on Lilia can provide.

Alongside this, we have Lilia’s story, from her abduction by her father to her own wanderings across America. She also needs answers to the mysterious part of her past she cannot remember, but is she ready to hear it?

All the characters in the book are searching for answers to questions that continue to haunt them. Last Night In Montreal is a gripping and compelling tale, well written and with a narrative that never fails to deliver. I think we can all relate to one or another of the elements if this excellent book. Whether its the need to find resolution or simply answers to unresolved questions. 

An excellent read by a really good author. 

 

Before We Say Goodbye

by Gabriella Ambrosio

Before We Say GoodbyeOne day, two cultures, many lives.

Before We Say Goodbye is the story of a single day in Jerusalem in 2002. Although it primarily follows two different 18-year-old girls, one Palestinian the other Israeli, there is a very large cast of characters. If anything, there are so many characters making the interweaving plots difficult to follow. 

The direction of the plot becomes obvious quite early on. The two girls, Dima and Myriam each find themselves facing a day of change. Myrian is trying to come to terms with the loss of her closest friend to a Palestinian bomb. For her, this particular morning brings her some hope for the future. On the other hand, Dima’s mind is set on revenge for the treatment her friends and family have received at the hands of the Israelis. 

The two girls lives are separated by more than culture. Their life experiences give them very different prospects and outlooks. And although Dima and Myriam are the central characters in the short but poignant story, the others involved each plays their part in the story’s tragic journey.

It is not an easy read. Keeping track of the multitude of characters and events presents a challenge in itself, but add to that the intensity of the story itself and I would struggle to call it entertaining. But it is well worth the read.

Gabriela takes about as neutral a stance as possible, looking at both sides of the conflict. And in that, I thank she has achieved what she set out to do. Conflicts such as that between Israelis and Palestinians are never quite as straightforward as they seem. 

Sex in the Title

Sex in the TitleA Comedy about Dating, Sex, and Romance in NYC (Back When Phones Weren’t So Smart)

by Zack Love

I suppose there is a kind of art to coming up with book titles. They should covey the essence of the story; they should be snappy, memorable and, above all else, they have to grab the attention of the potential reader. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t be drawn to a book called “Sex In The Title”, even if it’s just for the sake of curiosity? But does it tell you anything about the book it is trying to sell? In a way yes, it does. That is not to say it is either erotic or pornographic. It is a romantic comedy, and a very funny one at that. What the title does tell you is that this is not a run of the mill rom-com. 

Set at the turn of the new millennium, Sex In The Title follows the loves, losses and dating disasters of five young men, newly arrived in New York and seeking fortune and love. It is a time when the internet is still trying to find its feet and mobile phones were, well, just phones. For these intrepid wannabe executives, the dating game is not always one they seem destined to win.

The characters and their stories are both engaging and believable. Each has their own hang ups about sex and romance. For some, the attempt to follow the stereotypical macho path society has set out before them is not leading them where they want to be. For others, their own past and family commitments make dating in New York city fraught with dangers. On their own, each struggles to find and maintain any kind of lasting relationship. But, when a freak (and I do mean freak!) incident brings them all together, that all begins to change.

The support they find in each other’s experiences and strengths lead them all on a path of self-discovery that ultimately helps them discover now only who they are, but what they truly want from their lives.

For me the book is pretty much a first. I have read plenty of romantic comedies, but I have come across very few that are written from the male point of view. That alone makes this a book worth trying, but add Zack Love’s honesty, wit and engaging style, Sex In The Title is a unique insight into the male view of the world. His characters are engaging and tragic and the story itself compelling and at times, laugh out loud funny. There is a gentle humour that makes even the most extreme character traits endearing. I loved the way these diverse and rather mixed up individuals come together to support each other in their pursuit of love. 

There are moments of introspection sitting alongside slap-stick comedy. The plot does on occasions veer towards the absurd, but I think it is a very accurate reflection of the period, and a painfully accurate look at the anxieties of twenty-something males trying to make their way in a world that is more competitive than they would like. 

A very enjoyable read from a writer from whom I have come to expect nothing less.

The Accidental

The Accidentalby Ali Smith

I picked up this book after reading several reviews of Ali Smith’s work and was really looking forward to what I believed would be a captivating and amusing read. After all, it is an award-winning book from a multi-award-winning novelist.

From previous experience, I should have realised that award winning doesn’t always relate to an enjoyable read. From the very beginning I felt that I was not going to get on with this particular book. Whilst I am used to novels that switch focus between characters, even changing narrative style each time, but in “The Accidental” I found myself quickly losing empathy and interest in their individual stories.

The Smarts are the kind of dysfunctional family that would normally be found in a sitcom. And if this book were a comedy, I might have had more understanding and feeling for the story. And whilst there are undoubtedly moments of mild humour, for me it just doesn’t work. The only character that I felt any empathy for was young Astrid for whom the stranger, Amber, becomes a kind of mentor.

Amber’s unexpected arrival at the holiday cottage, and the way the family handle her arrival, I found difficult to swallow. Her influence stretches credulity and the more I read, the more cheated I felt. But not just by the story. I found the narrative to be difficult to follow at times, with much of it adding little, if anything, to the story itself. 

For me this was a very disappointing book. I would say I am surprised it is an award winner, but it isn’t the first time I have been let down by critically acclaimed work. We all see different things in a novel – there is a saying that “no two people ever read the same book” and I am certainly not seeing what others do in this work. 

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on a cold December afternoon in 1973. Outwardly, here was nothing special about Susie other then she attracted the attention of the local loner who also happened to be a serial killer.

Now, from her place in heaven, Susie watches as her family and friends come to terms with her loss and face a future without her. From this vantage point she becomes aware of the threads that bind those who loved her and just how much damage can be done when those bonds are broken. The police are literally clueless in the search for her body and her killer. Only her father realises the truth but is unable to convince anyone else of what he has seen and felt.

Lovely Bones is the story of family falling apart from within, trying to come to terms with the devastating loss of a child. Told from the perspective of the teenage victim it remains strangely naive and optimistic despite the breakdown of all that is normal.

Through the eyes of Susie Salmon, Alice Sebold investigates the ways in which extreme tragedy can impact on all of us. Fr some, the need to understand what has happened forges closer bonds, for others the introspection drives a wedge between them and those around them.

Although I sometimes found the portrayal of heaven to be a little over indulgent, it is a vital element to Susie’s story. It just wouldn’t have worked without it. And to have told the story from any other perspective other than Susie’s would have left it too dark and introspective.

There are times when I find it difficult to put my feelings about a book into words. IT either comes across as formulaic and insincere or rambling. Lovely Bones is an example of this. The tragedy at the heart of the story is one that few will have to face, but many will fear. How would any of us cope with the loss of a child or sibling? What effect will this loss have on even the closest of families? As a parent, I found Lovely Bones to be both heart-warming and deeply disturbing. At times it was difficult to read, but I was comforted and lead on by the voice of young Susie.

In all, Lovely Bones is a beautifully told story of the ultimate loss. But at the heart of the book there is a feeling that we can overcome tragedy, there is always another path. An excellent and compelling read.

After You (Me Before You #2)

After Youby Jojo Moyes

After You is the long-awaited sequel to Me Before You, a wonderfully touching and romantic book that left many of its readers wanting more. So, that is what Jojo has done – come up with the “what happens next” that so many fans wanted.

But as if often said, be careful what you wish for. Reading other reviews it would seem that for many fans, what they wished for and what they got were not the same thing. Personally, I would have been happy leaving Louisa’s story as it was at the end of the first book. But having said that, unlike some others, I actually enjoyed reading about Louisa’s further exploits. 

Anyone reading this review without having read Me Before You should stop right now and go out and get a copy. 

For me, After You is necessarily very different from Me Before You. For one thing, Louisa needed to move on. She needed to rebuild her life in some way, to find resolution. 

The book begins a year after Will Traynor’s death with Louisa working at a London Airport bar. She has bought a flat with the money left her by Will, but has not followed his advice to continue her studies. Whilst she tries to put the events if the past behind her, events conspire to bring it all crashing back down around her. 

Jojo Moyes is an imaginative storyteller who has created an inspiring collection of characters. The story is both intense and witty. Louisa’s relationship with her family and the interplay between the two sisters and their parents provides much of the books humour. Whilst I wouldn’t say that Jojo Moyes is a writer of comic fiction, she does provide a layer of wit and humour that prevent even the most serious of plots becoming too intense.

I think that to compare the two part of this story doesn’t do either full justice. Each has a separate direction and I enjoyed them both for what they were. 

The Loney

The Loneyby Andrew Michael Hurley

I started reading this book believing it to be a traditional horror story. By the time I realised it wasn’t quite what I expected, I had been gripped by the dark and poetic prose and wonderfully portrayed characters. There is an undercurrent of mystery and fear throughout the book, but it never quite gets to the high-tension you would expect from the likes of Herbert or King.

Instead, The Loney mixes faith, suspicion and psychology in such a way I found the book difficult to put down. Each page leads the reader deeper and deeper into the mysteries that surround the people and places that inhabit this book.

The Loney itself is an isolated stretch of the Lancashire coastline that seems to exist in a permanent winter. It is where Father Wilfred leads his annual pilgrimage from his London parish. The dark and brooding atmosphere of the place permeates the buildings and the people who inhabit it. 

From the first brooding page to the last, The Loney is a great story and an encouraging debut from a new and exciting writer. Andrew Hurley’s style is easy but immersive. I was immediately drawn into the lives of these ordinary people who find themselves dipping into a word completely beyond their comprehension. 

A really good book and one I would unhesitatingly recommend.

Summer in the City

Summer in the Cityby Pauline McLynn

Take any suburban street in any city and it you will find a microcosm of society. From the ubiquitous average family to the eccentric or plain barmy, they will all be there somewhere. And it’s because of this we can relate to the strangely bizarre set of characters for whom Farewell Square is home.

There are a lot of characters introduced very quickly and at first I found it difficult to work out who was who and what their role was. But Pauline McLynn’s gloriously captivating narrative very soon made it all very clear. 

Farewell Square is one of those small cul-de-sacs that from the outside seem idyllic in their Victorian splendour. But behind every door is a tale of unfulfilled promise, unimaginable pain and unrequited passions. Each of the characters in this witty and thoughtful romp is brought face to face with their personal demons with the help of Lucy, the interloper in the Nissan Micra. Just why Lucy has taken up residence in the Square, living out of her unsuitably small car is just one of the mysteries that make this such a great read.

Pauline McLynn writes simple witty stories that are non-the-less thoughtful and captivating. Her style, and the wonderful characters she creates to populate her books make her work more than run of the mill. Summer In The City has moments of great comedy alongside heart-breaking sadness. It is an easy, relaxing read, but also one that makes interesting and thought provoking look at suburban life and the often ludicrous priorities of modern living. 

In poking around the sadness that lies beneath the surface of these very ordinary seeming characters, we can laugh at their absurdity, but also consider how we are perceived by others.

10:04

10:04by Ben Lerner

I have come to the conclusion that the more effusive the critical accolades, the less likely I am to enjoy a book. Obviously, this is a sweeping statement that I can refute myself almost immediately, but I am now becoming a lot more sceptical of the praise heaped on some books by established literary critics.

Ben Lerner’s “10:04” is one such book. 

From the claims included on the book’s cover, I was expecting something on the very of inspirational. What I actually got was a well written but confusing ramble through the life and thoughts of a poet trying to become an author. It feels, and probably is, more than a little autobiographical, with Ben himself taking the leading role.

I was distracted more than once by the need to reach for a dictionary as he tries to astound the reader with his wonderful Lexicography skills! Now, I am not afraid to admit my own failings on the front, but be reminded of it so frequently, along with references to what are to me obscure poets and philosophers, made the effort of ploughing my way through the book’s 240 pages a little tedious. 

The way the story meanders through the narrator’s trials and tribulations left me a little confused at times. At no point in the book did I feel in any way connected with the erstwhile author or his life. There was one small section I found witty and engaging, but rather than life the book, it acted as a reminder of just how uninspiring the rest of it was.

So, whilst I don’t say that the critics who claimed it to be the book of the year or extremely funny were wrong, for me it is proof of just how differently each of can interpret a book. The meanderings of the plot and the rambling nature of the narrator’s thought processes left me nonplussed and disappointed. Not for me Ben, sorry.

Me Before You

Me Before Youby Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is not a romance, it is a lover story as intense and compelling as any I have read before. 

Lou Clark and Will Traynor are the unlikely couple at the centre of this tale. Will is a former high flyer from the City. He has travelled the world, enjoyed extreme sports and love more than his fair share of women. But following a tragic motorcycle accident, his life has changed dramatically and it is not a life he wants to continue living.

Lou Clark, on the other hand, has hardly every travelled beyond the confines of her home town, has a long-term boyfriend and has just lost her job at the local tea shop. 

When the two are brought together, it looks as if the clash of their very different personalities can only mean disaster. But no, whilst there is plenty of friction between the two characters, the sparks that fly ignite a flame that neither could have anticipated.

Whilst this may sound like a typical bit of romantic fiction, it is not. Jojo Moyes doesn’t write that kind of fiction. Through Will the reader is forced to face the question of assisted suicide. For him, the life he faces as a quadriplegic is an anathema, it is the very opposite of everything he wants for himself, and the prospect of a life of pain, sickness and dependence is too much. For Lou, life is precious and she will do anything she can to make Will change his mind. She has just six months to convince Will that he does have things to live for before he makes his one-way trip to Dignitas.

The subject is handled with real care and respect. I cannot tell from the writing which side of the argument she herself supports. I enjoyed the love story that runs through the book, but was also moved by the tragic tale of a man facing his own morality. 

Jojo Moyes has a relaxed but engaging style that pulls the reader in from the very first page and doesn’t let go until she has wrung all the emotion out of you. As I said at the beginning, this book is much more than romantic fiction. I was transfixed by the characters and their stories. The way that Lou’s relationships with her boyfriend and family develop as she begins to discover new depths in her own character as heartwarming. 

A really good book that will keep you hooked to the very end.