Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Martian by Andrew Weir

I “borromartianwed” the Kindle edition of this techy sci-fi novel from my dad — who reads a lot of cheap books on his Kindle. While I think he makes up for quality with quantity, he raved enough about this book that I thought I’d give it a try.

Andrew Weir’s novel about an astronaut left for dead on Mars attempting to survive everything thrown at him is a fun, though sometimes tedious, read. It’s hard sci-fi with lots of technical explanations that I generally just let roll over me as I waited for the protagonist, with the help of mission control back on Earth, to overcome the immense alien world around him. This book is the ultimate Man vs. Nature and while the prose is nothing to write home about, the book moves along at a decently-paced clip.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes sci-fi and wants some light reading for the beach or pool.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #30: The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki

When I picked it up for a holiday read, I didn’t realise that The Key would fit in with my spies theme so well. It’s another story about secrets slowly being unwrapped, but these ones are inside a marriage, and they concern the body of a woman.

Two diaries, side by side, tell the story of a man’s sexual exploitation of his wife – in a most unusual way*. There are a lot of doubles in this story, and a lot of muddled visions. Even assuming, as I did when reading, that neither the husband or wife were telling the full truth, quite prepared me for the ending.

It is an unsettling and intimate read.

*Perhaps I’m sheltered, but I think it’s a fairly unusual way of going about this type of business.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #29: Spies by Michael Frayn

I was going for an espionage theme at the beginning of this month, which has currently been derailed, but it was an opportunity to finally lash into this corker of a novel. After seeing Copenhagen in my feckless youth and being dazzled by it, I’ve admired and fancied Frayn for his wordcraft, smarts, and great sense of humour. I must’ve owned at least two copies of this in the last ten years. But I was apprehensive of it – something sinister lay behind that hedge on the front cover, and perhaps I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate it? It was released in 2002, when I was still trying to get a handle on the confusing world of ‘grown up’ fiction. Ten (!) years later I took it on a weekend holiday away, to see if we could get in a dirty fling overseas.

I bloody loved it. It’s a book about childhood that nails so much that’s right about the state of being young, and those half-true stories that seem to be everywhere, in the very air, and the powers of imagination. It also captures that cruelty of children, chillingly. One moment had me gasp out loud, then put the book down to recover.

One of the review quotes in the front compares it positively with The Go-Between, which is my pick for the most perfectly realised novel ever, and I’d co-sign that. They both cover some similar ground – the lurch from child to adult, secrets half-revealed, the black holes of our memories. A wonderful, potent story.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #28: A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré

For years I assumed that Le Carré was Dad Lit, along the lines of Tom Clancy or John Grisham. Blame those glossy 80s covers, I guess, or my own Dad’s appreciation of them. Sorry, Dad. It took the combined forces of Oldman, Hardy, Cumberbatch, Strong & Firth (not to mention my beloved Kathy Bates) in the recent top drawer film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to get me to read the Karla trilogy, which I roared through and absolutely adored. I had no idea that this holiday-home-reading-shelf staple was so brilliantly witty, wry, sharp, sad, and surprisingly queer, both poignant and pointed about the decline of the Empire viewed in the microcosm of MI6.

Le Carré is that rare creature, a sure bet. His books are always good-to-excellent, and even though his latest isn’t quite in the league of his masterpieces, it’s still a killer read with a sharp edge to it. Like the recent headline says, he ain’t mellowed with age. This is a story with teeth.

It took me a little while to ease into it, which is probably more my fault than the novel, but once I let the familiar elements grip me – a lone man in the system, pervasive corruption, opacity, sex, dryly observed social mores,  the anti-glamour of the secret world of the foreign service – I was riveted. Without giving too much away, it starts in 2008 with a man in a hotel room, on a top secret mission, and then goes ahead four years later, where many people have to deal with the unforeseen consequences of that evening. Deadly stuff.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #26: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies is a romp, just like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the champagne is laced with bitters. Waugh’s sardonic eye on his generation and how they knocked the sentiment out of any their beholders carries on from Decline & Fall but is more loosely structured – careening from one party to another, with inappropriate flings, deaths, car crashes, squandered fortunes, and hideous meals scattered around.

I preferred Decline & Fall, for all the dizzying skill on display this was more a book I admired than romped along with. Lots of typical Waughisms (loved the debaunch of the Angels) and the opening sea crossing was a hoot.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #25: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes/But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes by Anita Loos

Following hot on the kicked-up heels of F. Scott’s flappers, the next book in my Roaring 20s season was the delightful and decadent Lorelei Lee. This high-minded mademoiselle has a frantic schedule thanks to her gentlemen friends (and she’s very friendly), but she still makes time for literary achievements – narrating these two giddy romps about her and her Best Frenemy Dorothy Shaw. In Gentlemen Prefer… they embark on a cruise to Europe to soak up some culture and the occasional tiara, and one of them even manages to nab herself a husband. In the somewhat racier sequel, Lorelei gives us the story of Dorothy’s misspent youth, entirely for moral guidance, you see.

The writing still crackles with wit, and there were some solid LOLs to be had. It’s dated in parts, but mostly charmingly so, and I enjoyed the bejeezus out of it.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #23: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Read this the same week I ran along Piccadilly, a bunch of flowers covering my head from the rain, very dead literary innit. Mine were from M&S and I was off to work, not a fancy party in a great house, but I felt that thin link for a few sweet moments between my actions and the inner life of Woolf’s heroine.

I read Mrs Dalloway years ago, and it had left only the vaguest impressions. I’d thought it was less fun than Orlando and hard going overall. This time around I loved every line. I chose it to kick off my late-March Roaring Twenties reading fiesta. It’s an oceanic book, containing multitudes, and I’m sure I’m still not bright enough to get that much of it, but the writing is wonderful, and the London references made me so happy to be able to live here right now.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #22: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

One of Isherwood’s most famous works, and one of his later books – from 1964 – it’s a short, vivid, no-holds-barred descent into grief. It opens with an indelible passage, simple but sharp. George wakes up and for a few blissful moments, he’s not George – he’s just a body, with no memory. Then his consciousness takes hold, and so does the pain.

George’s lover has died, and now he’s trying to get through the day. There’s an important difference between the film and the book, which I won’t go into, about George’s motivation, but in both he’s shielding the shell-shocked emptiness of his life from those around him.

There is not just sadness, but fury and humour and even mischief, in his mind. Isherwood doesn’t spare his views on politics, race (very dated, but for an Englishman in mid-60s California, illuminating), culture, and gender – he characteristically thumbs his nose at the entire female species. It’s interesting that the lead is ‘George’, and not ‘Christopher Isherwood’ as in many of his other works. Apparently he was inspired by re-reading Mrs Dalloway, which was a nice coincidence for me as I read that right afterwards.

For all the bleakness of the subject matter, it’s an extraordinarily vital work.

P.S. I watched the movie shortly after reading this, and absolutely loved it.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #24: The American by Henry James

As a literary scholar, I find Henry James’s prose to be absolute perfection. He captures a world in which a wrong look or touch can signal grave infidelity and betrayal, while capturing the inner workings of the mind set against a society that seeks to conform and repress. As a reader, however, James can be frustrating as hell. You just want him to GET TO THE POINT and we are stuck inside the heroine’s mind contemplating (again) the futility of her situation. And really, aren’t most/all of James’s novels about the futility of love? I constantly find myself stuck between the gorgeous writing and the maddening stories. So, it’s no surprise that it took me well over a month to get through The American, one of his less famous novels (it’s for research, so I had that impetus to get done quickly…).

Christopher Newman is an American who’s made millions with manufacturing tubs and essentially pulled himself out of the middle class. Yet, he realizes that in the world of manufacturing, he’s lacking the polish and Old World elegance that can only come from travel in Europe. So, he travels to Europe, falls in with an old comrade from the Civil War, and promptly falls in love with Claire de Cintre, an enigmatic widow from an imposing family, the Bellegardes.

As with all James novels, the love story is never as it seems, and all happy developments are thwarted by interference from family, self-doubt, or a multitude of circumstances. Newman’s desire for Claire, while sexless in its description, is aching and sincere. The family melodrama that later unfolds has caused critics to laugh off The American.

I don’t like this novel nearly as well as The Portrait of a Lady, though this introduction was more engaging. Still, Isabel Archer is a compelling character in a way that neither Newman nor Claire can be.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.