The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep

2 11 2013

I can’t remember who recommended this book or why I bought it. After a couple of pages, I had to check the publishing date since no-one was using mobile phones, and the comments about the Armenian genocide didn’t take the Turkish view into account at at all even though th story started off opinion Turkey. I discovered Lawrence Block published this book in 1966.

The story line was not bad, but many of the twists and the turns in he plot were so unrealistic that I felt it was too far removed from today’s well-researched and authentic-sounding story lines to be enjoyable. It read a bit like a film script, and some of the dialogue and the comment were quite entertaining. Still, I don’t think I will read any more of Lawrence Block’s novels. Apparently he has written over 100 books. He could be an acquired taste, but I won’t pursue this author any further, partly because the happy ending was way too tidy.

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Shantaram

26 10 2013

This book started like an adventure novel with a cross-cultural theme, which I really liked. But for each hundred pages (it’s 933 pages in total), the story became rougher and rougher. About two-thirds way through, there were so many bloody and gory bits, many which were very explicit, that I was thinking that this was definitely not my kind of novel at all. But I was hooked, because this rather violent and gritty story has a very warm and life-affirming centre: it’s really about redemption, love and forgiveness. And freedom.

The vivid description of life in Bombay is fantastic, and the multifaceted plot draws you in. Often you have no idea of where you’re heading. And I think this sense that I didn’t really know what the novel was “about” – until I had passed page 700 – was something I actually really enjoyed, because when it all became clear, it was all incredibly clever.

Lindsay, who escapes prison in Australia and hides in Bombay, India, has a powerful moment of recognition – what Aristotle would have called the anagnorisis – and this moment in the novel is superb. All the various threads in the story suddenly make sense, and the rest of the novel is about what Lindsay does with this new understanding, and where it takes him. I realise this is rather vague, but I don’t want spot spoil the impact for anybody about to read this book.

Another thing I really liked about this novel were the gems hidden in the often rough dialogue. Moments of clear perception of something rather large and complex, like, “What is India?” The lines about India as the “Land of the Heart”, or personality as “[the] co-ordinates a on a street map drawn by our intersecting relationships” are profound and very perceptive.

This novel made me think a lot, and I won’t forget the colourful and rich descriptions of Bombay. They kind of stay with you.

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The Kill List

27 09 2013

I’ve just finished reading The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth, not because I’m a fast reader – it was released in the UK yesterday – but because it was already on sale in Dubai last week. And seeing only a couple of copies left on the shelf, I decided to go for it.

The blurb suggested this clean, crisp plot: The Preacher (terrorist) versus the Tracker (US manhunter). However, I’ve been a bit disappointed. It’s reasonably fast-paced, with quite a lot of detail (military procedure, slang and hardware, international inter-agency cooperation and non-cooperation, secret service protocol) and some twists and turns here and there in the plot. Still, I felt the novel didn’t quite deliver. I’m not saying it’s not worth reading, but it is not at the same standard as The Day of the Jackal, The Fourth Protocol (my Forsyth favourite), or The Devil’s Alternative.

Having a computer genius with Aspergers is not a new angle in 2013, but there were a few great phrases here and there adding a bit of spice – my favourite one being “with the imagination of a chapati”. And it annoys me when the research for local detail has been shoddy – the only “cheap local airline” flying direct between Doha and Dubai International is FlyDubai, and their passengers definitely don’t see “a truly vast duty-free shopping mall” on arrival. The Duty Free at Dubai Terminal 2 is definitely on the small side (as all FlyDubai passengers know very well).

That said, I think The Kill List compares favourably with The Cobra, The Afghan and Icon.

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Incidents at the Shrine

15 06 2013

I went to a workshop with Ben Okri at the Dubai Festival of Literature in March this year. The workshop was called “Finding Your Voice” and Ben Okri kept asking me to delete adjective after adjective from my writing task until there were no adjectives left. “That is your voice,” he said.

His advice makes sense, reading his collection of short stories called Incidents at the Shrine. The prose is kind of minimalist, very tight, and the effect is that I’m painting my own vivid pictures in my head almost entirely on my own as I’m reading these stories. Of course we all visualise what’s happening in a story as readers, but with Ben Okri’s stories in this collection the langue is so economical, so condensed, that I have to fill in a lot of blanks. Make assumptions. Look into my memory and what I know about life and ask myself, “Is this really what is happening here?” I feel I’m building the story myself. Perfect texts for reading-response theorists, I suppose.

There are two things I really like about this collection of short stories. First, the stories give me such a completely new and different view of life that I feel I’ve travelled very far away from the world I know. The privilege of seeing life from a completely new angle. Exotic. Strange. Second, these stories really challenge me because the situations described are often really desperate – I keep asking myself as I’m reading whether people really live under these circumstances – and yet the language is so totally matter-of-fact. Which enforces the sense that this is life as normal for the characters in the stories. And I find that challenging.

This is a great collections of stories with vivid colours, sounds and smells from Africa. Most of it made up by yourself in your own head as you read because of Ben Okri’s tight, focused, concise prose.

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Norwegian Wood

21 04 2013

I know Murakami’s Norwegian Wood became hugely popular in Japan, but I much prefer the other novels I’ve read by him so far. Norwegian Wood is just a “normal novel”, i.e. it doesn’t have any of the magical realism-type elements you find in 1Q84 or Kafka by the Shore – and it’s really the magical realism that attracted me to Murakami’s writing, more than anything else, when I started reading his books.

That said, Norwegian Wood has a unique voice, which is quite an achievement since it’s not written in the first person – like, say, Catcher in the Rye – but somehow Murakami manages to create a very particular view of the world through the often chatty, lighthearted banter mixed with the harsh realities of life, loss in particular. If there’s one thing I really like about this novel, it’s the voice.

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Daniel

24 11 2012

Daniel by Henning Mankell has a very clean, straightforward plot and I like that. It’s 1875 and Hans Bengler wants to be a famous entomologist. He decides to go to Africa to find an insect that hasn’t been discovered yet. In the Kalahari Desert he comes across a young orphaned boy and decides to adopt him and take him back to Sweden. He names him Daniel. The novel describes what happens when Daniel arrives in Sweden.

The result is a novel that deals with the clash between two cultures and an exploration of cross-cultural intelligence. I don’t feel too bad that virtually all Swedes come across like Neanderthals when it comes to cross-cultural intelligence – this is 1875 after all. And I did enjoy the observations and the sometimes profound analysis of Sweden as seen from the perspective of the young African boy.

This novel could have become a predictable story about a “noble savage” becoming corrupted when coming in contact with Western civilisation. However, even though the analysis and the acute observations are almost exclusively done by Daniel, there’s enough complexity in the story to make it a worthwhile read. And the world-view from the Kalahari Desert is fascinating.

I also like the fact that I don’t know where the plot is taking me. The narrative is not fast-paced – it’s not meant to be – but there are plenty of surprises along the way. And the pervasiveness of the desert – as a real place and as a metaphor – adds to the purity of the plot, and it energises the narrative.

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Sweet Tooth

15 10 2012

When I read the blurb for Sweet Tooth, the latest novel by Ian McEwan, I immediately thought that combining MI5 and spying with literature and fiction-writing had to be a perfect mix. And I was not wrong.

I do like Ian McEwan very much, though sometimes his extremely well-crafted style strikes me as a bit too polished. His characterisation is outstanding – also in this novel – but I think what this novel adds is this post-modern, meta-fictional, reader-response-type twist at the end of the novel. Pure delight.

If you’re looking for tense spy fiction, this is not it. You kind of get that almost from the first page. But if you’re looking for an intriguing story that draws you in, where you’re never really sure where you’re heading, then this is a good bet. And as I said, the last chapter is pure delight.

Brilliant!