loulamac’s #CBRV review #81: Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

michael k

This is a strange, disquieting, upsetting book. It is dream-like and confusing, while being very well-written. Having said that, I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t see how you can ‘enjoy’ reading a book about a brutal world intruding into the existence of a fragile idiot savant. Terrible things happen.

Michael K is a simple man, in every sense of the word. Living in a South Africa riven by civil war, Michael’s in his thirties, and his hare-lip and learning disabilities mean that his existence is limited to his work as a municipal gardener in Cape Town and taking care of his invalid mother. Illness has meant that she can no longer work as a domestic for a rich family who live in a luxury apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and she wants nothing more than to die on the farm where she was born. So with nothing more than a cart Michael has made, very little money and no official papers, the pair set out on their journey. It is winter, and after a short time Anna is in hospital, where she dies, leaving Michael alone. Before long, Michael is picked up by the authorities, and finds himself in a work camp. What follows is a surreal chain of events that sees him escape, nearly starve to death in the mountains, cultivate pumpkins on an abandoned farm, be arrested again and kept in the prison hospital before escaping once more to return to the coast.

The sense of the chasm between the haves and have-nots is intense in this novel. Anna K lives in a small room under the stairs in the apartment block, a room intended for the air conditioning equipment. The book also seethes with injustice, whether it’s the unfairness of Anna K’s life, her ignominious death, the exploitation of refugees in the work camp, or Michael’s incarceration. What’s interesting is that despite the books subject matter, it somehow doesn’t come across as political. Michael isn’t accepting of his fate, but in his repeated escapes from imprisonment and refusal to eat he isn’t making a statement, he’s just doing what feels right for him.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #80: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Climbing this book was like reading a mountain. (Wait, what?) I am exhausted, yet fulfilled. I’m also feeling a bit out my depth.

Ever since I finished my Master’s degree two years ago, I haven’t read that many CAPITAL L ‘Literature’ books, mostly out of what you might call ‘avoidance.’ So I’m a bit out of practice in writing anything that isn’t based off of things my hindbrain spews up out of reflex, and I’m definitely out of practice digesting and processing prose that is in any way not designed to deliver pleasure directly to my frontal lobe. So forgive me, please, for not being able to write about this book in a way that would match its own quality, which, by the way, was excellent.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award winning Wolf Hall, the first in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy — which continues in last year’s Bring Up the Bodies and will conclude in 2015 with The Mirror and the Light — chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from a poverty-stricken violent son of a drunken blacksmith to the personal advisor to Henry VIII.

I will admit up front that before reading this book, my knowledge of Tudor England was on the limited side, most of it consisting of what I’d gleaned from listening to “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” and from reading Hark! A Vagrant, along with wherever else I might have soaked up the occasional tidbit of general knowledge (as a rule, most American children have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on with the history of the English monarchy, excepting to know it was good old King George who fought us in the Revolutionary War, and some king named James wrote the Bible — and we’re lucky if they know even that). I’d heard the name Thomas Cromwell, but I had no idea that he’s generally considered somewhat of a dick, historically speaking, and I still wouldn’t know if it this book were my only source of information.

Certainly you come away from this book with a pretty good idea of the goings on surrounding Henry’s quest for a male heir (and the sometimes surprising motivations behind it) — the annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine, the disinheriting of his daughter Mary, making himself the head of the Church in England, and the resulting split from the Catholic Church (and all that mess entailed), and of course, his marriage to Anne Boleyn (and the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth, not that anyone in this book regards her of any worth at all — Mantel even has characters referring to her regularly as ‘The Ginger Pig’). But the real focus is Thomas Cromwell, both the private and the public man. We spend just as much time getting to know Thomas’s family as we do with the King’s affairs (and Cardinal Wolsey’s before that).
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loulamac’s #CBRV review #36: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore


The main character in this book is called Futh. He might have a Christian name, but if he does no one ever uses it. This would be ok if The Lighthouse was some kind of budget Game of Thrones. It isn’t. He’s called Futh because he’s of German descent; he doesn’t have a Christian name because the writer thought that would say something significant about his place in the world. So we’ve got an annoying main character with an annoying name, and a pretentious writer. On the plus side, the book’s only 183 pages long.

Futh is in his 40s, thin, invisible, with thinning hair. In the opening paragraph this thin hair is ‘deranged’ by the wind. Does Moore mean the opposite of ‘arranged’, or is this some kind of symbol of his mental turmoil? I don’t know. Futh has just been left by his wife, and you do wonder why she married him in the first place. He’s on a walking holiday in Germany, and is obsessed with what things smell like, his long-lost mother, his abusive father, how little his wife liked him, his peculiar childhood friendship with his father’s mistress’ son, and whether he’s missed breakfast at the hotel he’s staying in. The eponymous lighthouse is a silver ornamental perfume bottle holder that belonged to Huth’s mother (and grandfather and great-uncle). At the same time, we meet Ester, the blowsy dissatisfied wife of the owner of one of the hotels Huth stays in. Her husband’s a bit possessive, and tends to beat up the blokes she shags (of whom Huth is not one). If this all sounds rather tangled and interesting, let me assure you it isn’t. It’s just boring, and nothing much happens.

My mini mission to read all the books that were shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize has seen me scale the heights of Bring Up the Bodies, plough through the exhausting but delightful Umbrella, and consider never reading another book again because of Swimming Home. While The Lighthouse is nowhere near that terrible or self-indulgent, it is without question one of those books. You know, the kind where the main character is broken and alone, everything is a bit ordinary yet a bit strange, the prose is repetitive in an attempt to be hypnotic, and you’re glad when it ends.

lyndamk #cbr5 review #14: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

13507212I’m having a hard time writing this review and I’m not sure why. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is an excellent book and one of my favorites of the year. Both books won the Man Booker Prize and in my opinion deserved it. So, why is it so hard to write this? I think it is because I like Thomas Cromwell and I know how the story ends. Plus I loved everything about this book.

Read more at my blog…

loulamac’s #CBRV review #33: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


Anne Boleyn. What a woman. For love of her, the King of England transformed his country’s religion, broke with Rome, risked war with the rest of Europe and threw over his wife of 24 years. She was well educated, opinionated and feisty in a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard. She also had incredible sexual charisma, despite not being considered a beauty by the standards of the time. For these, and many other reasons, I consider her a feminist icon, and have always been saddened by the way in which she was cast aside, and her ultimate fate. So, given how much I LOVED Mantel’s French Revolution epic A Place of Greater Safety, I was beside myself when Wolf Hall was published.

Bring up the Bodies picks up right where Wolf Hall left off. Henry VIII and Anne are married, the future Queen Elizabeth I is a babe in arms, and as yet there’s no sign of the much-wanted son and heir. Already our hero (and I use the term loosely) Thomas Cromwell has seen the writing on the wall. Anne is losing her grip on Henry, whose head has been turned by the mousey (and seemingly more pliable) Jane Seymour. When Anne miscarries a male child, her time on the throne is up. As he did for the disposal of Catherine of Aragon, the King turns to Thomas Cromwell to aid him as he sheds another wife. And Cromwell knows better than to stand in his way. Anne and her family are on quicksand, and the book charts the alarming speed with which allegiances shift and reputations are destroyed as Cromwell goes about his grim work.

I feel a bit bashful writing a review of this book, as if I’m not worthy. Should a mere mortal like me be allowed to add my tiny bit of approval to the mountains of praise heaped on Hilary Mantel? Bring up the Bodies and its predecessor Wolf Hall deserve all the acclaim and awards they’ve received. The writing is spare and powerful, creating a world that is threatening and treacherous. Cromwell manipulates and navigates his way through a Tudor England that is populated by self-serving, back-stabbing, avaricious sharks. Cromwell himself is hardly shiny-white, but Mantel’s presentation of him is so compelling it hardly matters. Even though we all know what happened to Anne, Jane, Cromwell and the rest, I was anxious and on the edge of my seat all the way through. The description of the trials and executions of Anne and her brothers are terrifying, as the realisation dawns on them that the truth matters little now they are caught up in the inexorable machine of crown, church and state.

I can’t wait for the next one.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #30: Umbrella by Will Self


I have a rule when it comes to books: if I start, I have to finish. This is the main reason I’ve never started Breaking Dawn, and also why I didn’t give up on this book after 20 pages. I’m grateful for both of these things, because while Umbrella isn’t the easiest read, and I didn’t exactly enjoy it, it is good. Really good.

It’s hard to say what it’s about, but it seems tells the story of Audrey Death, growing up in pre-World War One London, working in Woolwich’s munitions factory during the war, and finally as an old lady in Colney Hatch mental hospital in the 1970s. She has been hospitalised for over 40 years, diagnosed as mentally ill when she’s likely a victim of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that spread across Europe between the wars. It also tells the story of her brothers Albert and Stanley, and the latter’s experiences in the trenches. AND it tells the story of Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist who becomes fascinated with Audrey’s case when he goes to work at Colney Hatch in 1971, which he reflects on as an old man forty years later.

If this sounds confusing, it is. Even more so given that character points of view and period shift mid-sentence without warning. The text is a continual, repetitive stream of consciousness with  sections that seem to indicate a character’s inner voice italicised, no speech marks and few paragraph breaks, making it hard work as well as confusing. But despite all of that it’s a really good book. Really good. The characters are fascinating, I found myself caring deeply about some of them (particularly Stanley), and Busner’s one-man crusade to bring Audrey back from her illness is compelling and tragic. The first 100 or so pages were a battle, but once I took my brain out and let the strange rhythmic prose wash over me, I was absorbed.

Leanna Moxley’s #cbr5 review #2: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes



The Sense of an Ending is only a few hundred pages long, a quick read that often refuses to delve deeply into scene or description. Instead, the book relays information the same way it would actually be remembered years later: as a story the narrator has crafted about his own life, a hazy story, missing details, second-guessed and puzzled over. It is a fast read, but not a light one. The seemingly slight words on the pages are more than a little troubling, and I left the book with a strong sense of being unsettled, jostled out of my narrative assumptions. Life is a story we tell ourselves, but life itself is not a story. Read more on my blog.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


My first encounter with Julian Barnes was when I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters on a vacation to Italy ten years ago. I was so taken by the beauty of the language and the clever way that Barnes wove common themes throughout the collection of stories that I thought the world had just found its newest Barnes disciple. Sadly, though I have read quite a few of his novels since then, none evoked the same response that I had to History. So I picked up The Sense of an Ending with a healthy dose of skepticism, Man Booker Prize be damned!

And what do you know. . I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, or rather, the story that Tony Webster remembers as he looks back at his early life and his re-evaluation of it in middle age. The novel is told in two parts. In Part One, Tony shares the story of his school days. He has three chums, and his little clique is intelligent, philosophical, and yes, arrogant in that intellectual-English-school-boy way.  When they go off to university they grow apart and Tony starts dating Veronica, whom he portrays as superior and condescending. After a bad breakup, Tony learns that Veronica has started dating his old friend Adrian. At first he pretends he isn’t bothered but later writes a scathing letter to the couple telling them exactly what he thinks of them. At the end of Part One, tragedy strikes, forever shattering the little group. Tony moves on with his life: his marriage, the birth of his child, and amiable divorce are covered in two and a half pages. In Part Two, something happens to cause Tony to re-think history, to dredge up past memories, contact Veronica, and try to figure out what exactly happened forty years ago.

Let me be clear: this is not a “he said/she said” novel. It’s more like “he said/he questioned what he said/he asked others what they thought he said.” The overriding theme of the novel is a twist on the “history is written by the winners” platitude: “History is the lies of the victors and the self-delusion of the defeated.” That second part often gets overlooked.

Curiously, in spite of all middle-aged Tony’s self-recriminations, I still liked him and, in fact, I felt like he was being way too hard on himself. Even the revelation of his vicious missive to Adrian and Veronica didn’t make me think less of him, and while the complexities of their relationship became more apparent, I still found Veronica to be superior and condescending and couldn’t muster much sympathy for her. I dare say other readers may have a different opinion, and that I think is the point. Every one of us has individual perspective and individual baggage that clouds our vision. Is there such a thing as complete objectivity? Even 60-year-old Tony can’t agree with 20-year-old Tony, so how can separate individuals with completely different backgrounds understand history the same way? So much of history, our own history, relies on our own imperfections of memory and our inability to truly understand someone or something outside ourselves.

With that understanding, I begin to wonder how my own tastes and preferences have changed as I have changed over time. Would I be as impressed with A History of the World in 10½ Chapters if I read it for the first time today? Would I like Barnes’s England, England more if the ten-year-older me read it now? One thing I learned from this novel is that we, like history, are seldom static.