The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry- Book Review

9780349141077Life has been a bit bananas of late and even reading has fallen by the wayside a bit. Perhaps that’s why I had to write about this one – I’m jumping straight in there and saying I loved The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. If warm fuzzy socks and a mug of hot chocolate could assume book form it would be this. It’s sweet and kind and uplifting and heartwarming, and it is such a homage to books and bookstores and the joys of reading that I can’t imagine any reader not liking it…. Other than perhaps bookclubs and booksellers who feel they have been shamelessly pandered to by the writer, which they kinda have, but I forgive her!

It’s also one of the most quotable books I’ve read in years:
“We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on”
“The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”
“The words you can’t find, you borrow. We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.”

The eponymous A.J. Fikry is quite the curmudgeon when we first meet him – but he’s had a rough time of it recently. The owner of Island Books, where “No Man is an Island, Every Book is a World”, he is recently widowed and drinking himself to an early grave. His beloved bookstore is barely making ends meet and his prize possession – a rare edition of Poe – has been stolen. Even his  books aren’t bringing him any joy – and to make things worse the rep from his favourite publishing house has died and he has to contend with the quirky new rep coming into his store and trying to get him to read outside his comfort zone. For reasons that become clear later, someone abandons a precocious toddler in his store. And everything changes…

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Decompression – book review

517cmbPti0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Juli Zeh’s Decompression is billed as a psychological thriller that is ‘claustrophobic, smart and unrelentingly intense’. Sven Fiedler and his younger girlfriend Antje run a diving instructional school in a remote part of Lanzarote. Sven has run away from judgmental German society and a promising career in law, and Antje has followed him like a loyal, if not necessarily faithful, hound.

The story begins with the arrival of their most recent customers – a German couple who have booked Sven’s exclusive services for their trip. Jola is a soap star who wants to learn to scuba dive to snag the lead role in a biopic about underwater photographer and model Lotte Hass; her partner Theo a controlling middle-aged novelist with writers block. The couple sleep apart, and are clearly having long term problems that the trip brings to the fore “It’s always this way: you travel thousands of miles to sleep less comfortably and to understand yourself better”. The action unfolds primarily from Sven’s viewpoint, with interspersed excerpts from Jola’s diary that give a very different version of events.

In diving, decompression is the gradual reduction of ambient pressure as a diver returns to the surface – a highly controlled process used to avoid ‘the bends’, the potentially fatal build-up of bubbles of dissolved gases in the body. The plot and pace of Decompression hinges around control (by parents, partners and society) and the consequences of the release of pressure, whether it is gradual or sudden. Theo is physically, sexually and emotionally dominant of Jola, who has some pretty serious daddy issues on the back burner. Sven may be superficially laid back, but the precision required to survive in his chosen underwater environment belies this. The chaos that Theo and Jola’s toxic relationship brings to his controlled and isolated world is one of the main builders of tension. The other is the increasing sexual dynamic between Sven and Jola. In Sven’s version this involves rebuffing her advances by day and obsessively masturbating over reruns of her soap at night; in Jola’s version this involves them being in a steamy affair and playing to run away together… but which version can we believe? In one version Theo is a decent enough guy who doesn’t deserve the provocative posturing of his volatile girlfriend, in the other Theo is an abusive controlling tyrant. As for Antje – well, this character is so short-changed I don’t even know why she’s in it, there is a cameo from a gecko in their apartment with more believable motivation.
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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – book review

harry qThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by literary wunderkind Joel Dicker has been a publishing phenomenon. It sold over 2 million copies in the original French and has been translated into more than thirty languages since. To give you just a flavour of the literary praise heaped upon the novel, The New York Times Book Review called it “unimpeachably terrific”. 

Marcus Goldman, the novel’s protagonist, is like Dicker – young, rich, famous, and struggling under the weight of literary expectation. Hopefully unlike Dicker, he’s a shallow self-absorbed asshat. He is struggling with intense writers block, and turns to his erstwhile mentor (the internationally renowned author Harry Quebert) for help. Quebert soon has enough on his plate however – the body of fifteen year old Nola Kerrigan, a local girl who disappeared thirty three years earlier – is found buried in Quebert’s back garden, clutching a manuscript of the novel that made Quebert’s name. It is soon revealed that the two had a passionate affair; that the novel in question was inspired by their forbidden love; and that Nola was not the sweet innocent that Quebert believed her to be at the time. As Goldman begins to investigate what happened so he can clear his mentor’s name (and conveniently get a multi-million dollar publishing deal for the novel he writes about it) it becomes apparent that many of the inhabitants of these sleepy town had their own secret connections to Nola, and their own reasons for wanting her dead.

This seems like one of those annoying reviews that gives away the entire story, but trust me that hasn’t happened here. This book has more plot twists than you’ve had hot dinners, and it is fast-paced and incredibly readable. There’s also more red herrings than the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has endings – so if, like me, you normally don’t read crime fiction because the ‘hints’ dropped are too obvious and it’s never a surprise ending, you’ll still enjoy this. Just when you think the story is over, there is a massive tailspin off in another direction and a whole additional subplot is opened up to boot. It’s certainly not boring.
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Christ’s Entry Into Brussels

41Z4HebVF5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Dimitri Verhulst’s Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is part moral fable, part vitriolic and darkly humorous analysis of modern Belgium. Just like the Ensor painting from which it takes its name, this book is not so much about a visitation from the Son of God but about holding a mirror up to the society he will return to find. The Second Coming is not announced with any great fanfare “[t]here it was, tucked away between an item about an attempt on the world hotdog-eating record and one listing the latest antics of a female pop singer. Christ was coming to Brussels on the twenty-first of July”. However a subtle change begins to happen that very day – people speak to each other on public transport for the first time in living memory – and the mood of the nation begins to have a dramatic overhaul.

Our narrator is sleepwalking through his life. His marriage is dissolving, his relationship with his only surviving parent practically non-existent, his desire to limit his interactions with other human beings apparently his primary driver. He fluctuates between resentment and cynical detachment, yet as the novella progresses our narrator too gets caught up in the swelling of hope and national pride as the fateful day approaches. He buys his wife flowers. He visits a neighbour for dinner. He dares to dream of a better future for a nation that he has little patience with or respect for. After all, if Jesus Christ has chosen the national holiday to appear – perhaps the place isn’t so bad after all? Our narrator is not alone in jumping on the Jesus-joy bandwagon as “[d]efeatists and kiss-my-arsists everywhere indulged in childish excitement, the sceptics put the mockers under lock and key – it was a moving sight”

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Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889, James Ensor

Not content with ringing the birds and branding the cows, humanity has ‘moved on’ to cataloguing itself. As the wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson has bemoaned “Had to wait in line to renew a Passport allowing me to visit members of my own species across artificially conceived borders”. Verhulst quickly turns his satiric gaze to Transit Centre 127 where illegal immigrants are held – “Illegal: imagine hearing it about yourself! That your existence is unauthorised! That your birth was non-statutory! That you weren’t actually allowed to exist!” Among those waiting to be deported back to the only places on earth where they are less welcome than in Belgium, the authorities hope to find a translator to help them communicate with Jesus. Remembering Jesus’s fondness for children, they select an eleven year old girl who is soon plagued with nightmares that she does something wrong and loses out on the permanent resident permits she and her family will receive as payment. Arabic, ancient Aramaic, it’s all the same right? The authorities disregard for the differences in these languages is all the more ludicrous given the detailed lampooning of the cumbersome politics surrounding Belgium’s multilingual public administration.
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