Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A review Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that. How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of…

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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley – A Review

The acclaimed author of "Elmet" delivers her second novel Fiona Mozley This is an unexpectedly fabulous book. Mozley received lots of critical acclaim for her debut novel, Elmet, published in 2017, but, I have to confess, I was underwhelmed by it. It seemed to me to be one of those novels that sacrificed the more humble virtues of plot, character and credibility of motivation for obliqueness and a certain poetic sensibility. Having arrived at an interesting (though not really believable) story, she recast it through a vague lens of obscuring the connections and back stories and motivations to make it more “interesting”. The reader is forced to become a detective, piecing together fragments of description and dialogue, working out time shifts and changes in perspective until a narrative emerges just in time for a vaguely satisfying resolution to come into view. Of course, you can only do this if you’re an experienced and…

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Beautiful World, Where Are You?

Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure. I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.” I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring…

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A Review of Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen's latest effort to bear. For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction. It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you…

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The Mercies

I’d seen this book here, there and everywhere over the last year or so. At first, I lumped it in with that slew of novels, all with a similar style of colourful, swirling patterns on the cover and a one-word title, that were so much in vogue in the last year or so. You know the ones I mean – The Familiars, The Foundling, The Binding, The Corset. I tried all of those, having a love of the gothic, but didn’t finish any of them. I found them pale imitations of the real thing, compared to, say, one of the early Sarah Waters books. The other thing that put me off trying this one, for quite a long time, was Millwood Hargrave's children’s novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars. Despite it’s wonderful title (a title that, incidentally, put paid to my own novel, The Girl with Stars in her Hair) I found…

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More Sorrow than Bliss

A review of "Sorrow and Bliss" by Meg Mason Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints. It's targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have…

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Wolves in Winter – Joan Aiken’s enduring legacy, part 1.

Right at the beginning of my first job as an English teacher, in South London in 1983, I was shown where the Department book cupboard was and told to have a rummage. This was cutting edge preparation back in the Eighties, when it was assumed that new teachers might have some ideas of their own about what to teach and how to teach it. I can still remember using that oh so familiar standard issue ILEA master key to gain entrance to this Aladdin’s cave of treasures. A gloomy, cavernous store hung with the smell of dust, chalk and cleaning fluids, it revealed its secrets fitfully as the neon strip light coughed into life, taking several pings before flooding the area with dazzling white light. I shut the door behind me. In the glare, the rows and piles of books covered all four walls and most of the floor. Later in my career,…

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Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values. Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is…

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Where the Crawdads Sing – Warning! Lukewarm review on the way.

Last summer's literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting. Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced. Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is. There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated…

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