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War Crimes for the Home


War Crimes for the Home, by Liz Jensen
Gloria is very old, and everyone assumes that it is senility that makes her so cantankerous, and possibly forgetful.
But during the war, Gloria was young and pretty and in love. After the war she has a beloved son, who is the spitting image of the handsome groom in her wartime wedding picture. So what happened to that dashing young American who left her with a child? And why can't she remember? Or does she remember and just refuse to face it?
Now her son is middle-aged, and he has found a slightly older, middle-aged woman who believes she is his sister. As the two of them visit Gloria in the old-age pensioners' home and try to ferret out the truth, a strange story keeps coming up: a story about Gloria and her American beau and a hypnotist and his pretty, but ruthless, assistant. . .
War Crimes for the Home is unique, engaging, and oddly uplifting, with its coarse humour, its unflinching story, its flawed but lovable heroine and its wonderfully twisting exposition. I recommend it heartily.

e., The e. Before Christmas and The Book, The Movie, The T-shirt

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M@tt Beaumont is the author of a very funny novel, which is a modern variation on the 18th and 19th century form whereby a novel's story is told wholly or largely through letters. In this case, of course, it is e-mail that carries the plot, and an attempt to win a Coca-Cola account that drives it. The use of e-mail where normally people would just speak to one another is quite cleverly handled, and only strains credulity very mildly in a few places.
The real pleasure of this novel is in the characters. Their mis-behaviour seems quite extraordinary to me, but maybe it is par for the course for the younger generation, or for London, or for the advertising industry. For all their criminal escapades and colourful mental health issues, they are somehow very believable characters, at least as far as comic characters go, and they remind me of people I have worked with in the distant past, in my youth, when working in a wildly dysfunctional office was the norm. There is lots of buggery, cocaine, back-stabbing and outrageous expenditure from the corporate purse, one unconvincing suicide attempt and one rather charming office love tryst, along with the usual deceit and missed deadlines and office pranks.
There is a sequel, The e. before Christmas, which is very short, a little tidbit, a stocking stuffer. It is more of the same and just as funny, but shorter.
Finally, there is Matt Beaumont's more recent book, and a departure from the e-mail format, The Book, the Film, the T-Shirt. It is also a departure from the Miller-Shanks advertising agency that was the setting for the e. books, although, unsurprisingly, there is a "cameo" appearance from one of the characters. It is about an ad agency, though: the rather imaginatively named Fuller-Scheidt.
Reminiscent of The Office and Just Shoot Me, but funnier than either, these books are recommended for mindless diversion, and any of them might make a good holiday read.


American Gods

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Mythology, fantasy, an adventure story, an allegory. A young man named Shadow went to prison, mainly to protect his beloved wife Laura from being implicated in the crime she planned and he unwillingly participated in. Just before he is to be released, Laura dies in a car crash, along with his "best friend".
Shadow is only out of prison a short time when a mysterious but compelling older man named Mr. Wednesday latches onto him, doing him favours, but also setting him extremely difficult tasks. Through Mr. Wednesday, Shadow meets more bizarre characters, many of whom have the strange character traits of Mr. Wednesday. Gradually, Shadow figures out that they are gods, gods who have followed their worshippers to America, only to find that their religions fade away or are absorbed into the folk traditions of American life.
If you liked Sandman, you will definitely like this. It has the feeling of some of the more compelling sub-plots in Sandman, but is developed fully as a novel. Very highly recommended. Also, you can read long complex discussion threads about this and other Neil Gaiman works at the message boards on Neil Gaiman's Journal.

The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri
Vishnu is dying on the staircase of a crowded apartment building in Bombay. He has been living on the staircase, a coveted location, and paying for the privilege by running errands for the more favoured residents. As he lies in a fevered condition, two worlds swirl around him, the real world and the dream world of his memories and fantasies.
The real world is the tiny but populous world of the apartment block, where a man mourns his dead wife, two housewives fight over their shared kitchen, a Muslim householder dreams of founding a new religion to unite Hindus and Muslims, and his son schemes with the daughter of Hindu neighbours to elope in a style befitting the Bollywood movies she loves.
Vishnu's dream world is also full of wishes and longings, and memories of his love for the beautiful but (almost always) unavailable Padmini. Vishnu's mother comes back to him in memory, reminding him he is a god, and he begins to believe that he is. As the apartment residents step past Vishnu's semi-conscious body, only sure he is not dead because of his occasional stirrings or faint cries, he becomes a touchstone for their own compassion, beliefs and self-images. This is a strange and beautiful story, beautifully told.

The Rotters' Club

The Rotters' Club, by Jonathan Coe
I imagine that anyone who grew up in Britain in the late 1970s would really identify with this book. There were parts that I really identified with myself, even though I grew up in the US, in the south, and about 10 years earlier. But then there are the cultural milestones, as opposed to personal ones, and in the milieu of this book, the five protagonists are beset by the demise of the industrial base in the Midlands and the IRA terror campaign, among other things. Whereas my high school years were stamped (upon!) by the virulent white opposition to racial desegregation and the Vietnam War. So, not so different, really.
The protagonists are a gang of four schoolmates and the older sister of one of them. (The Rotter's Club of the title is Ben Trotter and his beloved big sister, Lois, whose names are of course mutated by classmates into Bent Rotter and Lowest Rotter.) The other three boys are Anderton, the class-conscious one whose father is a shop steward, Harding, the edgy rebel, and Chase, the aspiring journalist.
The four boys are trying to form a band for most of the book, and it self-destructs as soon as it is formed. One boy goes to London and gets sexually initiated by a posh young woman several years his senior. The shop steward is in the throes of an affair that can only end badly, and he is trying hard to keep his family in the dark. Another boy's mother has an abortive affair with a teacher. Industrial tension simmers, somebody gets blown up in a pub, somebody else spends several years mute because of the loss of a loved one. There is a lot happening in the book and you get swept up in it, but it is sort of hard to keep track, the cast of characters is so large and lifelike.

All about suspense

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
This book is all about suspense . . . and lesbian sub-text, of course. Therefore, I must stop myself from saying too much, as I do not want to create even a hint of a spoiler.
The story concerns two girls. Sue Trinder is brought up as an orphan in Lant Street, London, amongst petty thieves and fences and con artists, sheltered somewhat by her unofficial guardian, Mrs. Sucksby. Maud Lilly's earliest memories are coming to consciousness in a madhouse, and then after the death of her inmate mother, being given to her creepy uncle who lives in a grand but isolated house. Maud's uncle uses her as a clerical assistant in his shadowy literary enterprise. Sue is persuaded by a con-man she knows as "Gentleman" to pose as a lady's maid to Maud in order to swindle her out of her inheritance. But nothing is at it seems . . .
If you love a good mystery, or a Victorian romance, or if you have lesbian tendencies and can take a really long tease if the culmination is worth it, then this is a book for you

A very sad novel that makes you laugh a lot

Everything Is Illuminated
Another first novel written in a funny dialect! But it is much more than that. Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel concerns a journey through the Ukraine by a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer. He is trying to find the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The main narrator of the story is Alex, a Ukrainian teenager. Also on the trip are Alex's grandfather Alex and a flatulent dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
Alex's prose style, in his letters to Jonathan after the trip, which carry the main weight of the story, is quite controversial amongst readers and reviewers, most finding it a bit too much. I was annoyed by it at first but it began to grow on me.
Interspersed with the main story of the trip are excerpts from the magical realist novel that Jonathan is writing, which is based on old historic legends about the now non-existent village where his grandfather lived, and Alex's commentary on the fragments of the novel. There are a lot of secrets and mysteries in the stories, and Alex's grandfather Alex seems to hold the key to them. But he is unable to remember, let alone talk about, what he knows.
This really is an unmissable novel, and one that you may want to re-read several times.

Nottingham Public Library Book Chains - the books wot I read

Buddha Da, by Anne Donovan
This is the first novel, but the second book, by Anne Donovan, and is something I read as part of a Nottingham Public Library programme called Book Chains. (Donovan's first book was a highly regarded short story collection.)
The most noticeable thing about this book, which presented quite a challenge to me as an American, is that it is written in a Glaswegian Scots dialect, except when the few non-Glaswegians are speaking. It is told from three points of view, Jim, his wife and his 12 year old daughter Anne Marie.
Jim, for reasons not clear even to him, decides to take up meditation with some Tibetan lamas in the Buddhist Centre in Glasgow. As he progresses on his baffling spiritual journey, he gives up meat, alcohol, and sex with his beloved wife, Liz. Liz is caring for her ailing mother, wishing she could have another child before she is too old, and just trying to get on with life, and understandably sees Jim's behaviour as self-centred in the extreme. Anne Marie has the most adult attitude of the three of them, and is carrying on with growing up, ditching old friends, picking up new ones, and producing an award winning CD combining Latin chant with Tibetan Buddhist chanting and Indian house music. In the end, it is the body rather than the spirit that resolves all these conundrums, leading the little family to a whole new spiritual plane. This is a lovely and engaging book, highly recommended.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
This book is one everyone is talking about, possibly because it won a prestigious award (the Man Booker). It is very absorbing, and the main character is one of the most likeable in all the fiction I have ever read (and that's a lot.) I don't know if the last two chapters are supposed to be a surprise, so I won't say anything specific about them, except to say that there was something of a let-down for me in the unresolvedness of the ending. It didn't seem right to me that a book so drenched with humanity and wisdom should have this little escape clause in it (if that's what it was.) Still, I strongly recommend this book.

River of Darkness, by Rennie Airth
River of Darkness, published in 2000 to an enthusiastic critical reception, is noted for "blend[ing] the traditions of the golden age mystery with elements of the contemporary psychological suspense novel." The story is set in 1921 and concerns a psychopathic serial killer and a Scotland Yard detective inspector. Both are survivors of the Great War. The detective inspector went into the war as an idealist and came out the other end fighting against cynicism and deeply scarred, with no expectation of ever being happy again. The killer went into the war already a psychopath and found a hellish paradise in war and a vocation that, with a few grisly props and a reliance on his training, will last him for life. From this chilling premise, Aird builds an absorbing tale of a cat-and-mouse game with enough twists to keep anyone guessing. The story is lightened up with a young novice constable's awkward coming of age in the force, and his hero worship of the main character, DI Madden, as well as a redeeming love interest and a few brilliant comic touches. There is a sequel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, set 11 years later, which I plan to read soon.