Various Pets Alive & Dead

by Marina Lewycka (Penguin) ISBN 9781905490912

 

Lewycka’s fourth book is uninspired and full of clichés, but maybe I just did not ‘get’ it. 

 

What I am looking for in a novel is something that touches the soul, that comes from within, whichever source that might be, something that makes me laugh out loud or makes me cry. Various Pets Alive & Dead did not move me, did not make me laugh and I found it a complete waste of time. 

 

If anyone wants to give it a try: The story is told in five parts, through several viewpoints, set in the economic crisis year 2008. Doro and Marcus are stereotypical parents from the hippie era who lived in a commune with their own children, Serge and Clara, and Oolie a Down’s syndrome girl, whom they co-parent.

 

Serge is an analyst at an investment bank, too scared to tell his parents about his materialistic job. Clara is a school teacher trying to bring order to her life and Oolie is the handicapped adult desperate to move out and become independent. Her voice is the most sincere. The various pets of the title are an unnecessary distraction.

 

Lewycka was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for her debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

2/5

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

by Ben Fountain (Canongate Books) ISBN: 9780857864383

 

The nineteen-year-old American soldier, Billy Lynn, is home for a short promotional tour across the country with his squad, before he is sent back to Iraq. The story is set in the Dallas stadium on the last day of the tour. Through flashbacks the reader follows his personal growth.

 

His brave attempt to help a fellow soldier in Iraq is caught on camera and the Bush administration uses the opportunity to get support for the war. The decadence of limos, fancy hotels, and compatriots worshipping them as heroes, depresses Billy.

 

Cynically he calls it the ‘pussification’ of Bravo. He suspects the Americans secretly know better, ‘but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.’

 

Fountain was Malcolm Gladwell’s example in his essay about the 10.000 hours needed to become great at something. It took Fountain six years, but he has succeeded in writing a brilliant novel full of interesting metaphors and images. The phrase “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War” on the cover however is deceiving. The book is satirical, fast paced and funny, but stands on its own. It doesn’t need a reference to a literary work to win its praise.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

4/5

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Farishta

by Patricia McArdle (Riverhead) ISBN: 978159448

 

In McArdle’s debut novel, diplomat Angela Morgan is sent to northern Afghanistan to secretly assess the accuracy of the interpreters’ translations. For this assignment she learns to speak Dari. Angela, who lost her husband in an embassy bomb explosion in Beirut in 1983 reluctantly accepts the posting to this volatile country, with the promise of a post in London after a year.

 

Farishta means Angel in Dari. The name gets a deeper meaning when Angela introduces her solar ovens in a part of the region with a scarcity of wood for cooking. She manages to find her own place in the male dominated society and earns the respect of warlords and soldiers. She learns to deal with her panic attacks and develops meaningful friendships.

 

McArdle is a good storyteller. Her writing gives insight in the history and archaeology of Afghanistan, the role of the women and opium farmers. The main story takes place in 2004/2005, the same time as when the author lived there. Maybe because of these first-hand experiences the novel is such a riveting read.

 

McArdle, a retired diplomat, based the story of Angela Morgan on her own life. She was also a public affairs officer in Johannesburg and introduced straw bale construction as building materials to South African farmers.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

4/5

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If This Is Home

by Stuart Evers (Picador) ISBN 9781447217404

 

After winning the 2011 London Book Award for Ten Stories About Smoking, I found Evers’s novel not entirely successful. The story centres on Mark Wilkinson, alias Joe Novak alias Mr Jones, who is trying to come to terms with his past.

 

Eighteen-year-old Mark was a young man, impatient to leave his English home village to start a new life in New York. He convinced his girlfriend, Bethany to join him. She promised her father to be the carnival queen the night before they were to leave and then something happens.

 

Mark leaves alone and takes on a new personality. With his new friend O’Neil he becomes a successful businessman, selling dreams to the ultra-rich in Las Vegas under yet another name. Slowly he starts to crack down and his former life catches up with him. His memories of his youth and what happened the night before his departure are weaved through the story and in his imagination the ghost from the past becomes real.

 

Evers is a good writer and there is a trace of melancholy in his story, but it did not keep me up all night.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

2.5/5

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Tell The Wolves I'm Home

by Carol Rifka Brunt (Pan MacMillan) R195 ISBN: 9781447202134

 

Sibling rivalry, the taboo around AIDS in the eighties, and a teenager’s crush are central themes in Brunt’s first novel.

 

The famous painter Finn Weiss made a portrait of his nieces, June and Greta during the last few months before he died. June was very close to her uncle and is constantly clashing with her sister Greta. After the funeral, Finn’s partner, Toby writes June a note. He says that she is probably the only person who misses Finn as much as he does. Toby was denied contact with the family by June’s mother who kept her brother’s lover a secret. She accused Toby of being the cause of her brother’s death. 

 

The note confuses June, but she feels Toby is the only one who understands her. She receives a message with a gift from Finn and sets about looking after Toby. Why has he been so caring of her? And what happens to the painting?

 

It is the loneliness of these two grief-stricken people that moved me. I enjoyed reading this book.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

3/5

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The Sea on Fire

by Howard Cunnell (Picador) ISBN: 978447202400

 

Kim feels most at home in the sea. He lives in London, but when his friend Garland asks him to join him as a dive instructor on a boat in the Red Sea, he doesn’t think twice.

 

He leaves his wife and three daughters behind to become a waterman- ‘a free voyager in inner space’- again. ‘The sea illuminated with the golden light I wanted to live in for ever. Under the brilliant surface of the water I could hide from a world I couldn’t believe in.’

 

Kim can’t resist the temptations: a beautiful girl, drugs and booze. Then the trip turns into a nightmare. Teddy King, the owner of the yacht, is a mirror of the demons of his past that haunt him. An accident happens, and Kim is forced to act.

 

This second novel by Cunnell is suspenseful, unpredictable and you won't be able to put it down. I found out more about the history of diving than I ever knew. The descriptions of the magical underwater world are accurate and captivating. The characters are well rounded and you can relate to Kim and Garland, despite their flaws.

 

This is the perfect holiday book: intelligent and entertaining. Highly recommended.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

4/5

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Take Me Home

by Tessa Cunningham (Pan MacMillan) R190 ISBN: 9780283071584

 

When Tessa visits her 95-year-old father in a care home, something so imperceptible happens that she almost misses it. As she takes his hand to say goodbye, he kisses her cheek and holds on to her hand a fraction too long. She sees the yearning in his eyes that he is too proud and too loving to express: ‘I’m scared, please take me home.’

 

This is how the story of Tessa, divorced, with a daughter at home and another one leaving for university, begins. She is struggling with life after recovering from breast cancer. The ordeal she has gone through with all the treatments made me understand even more what breast cancer really means in someone’s life.

 

Often, with memoirs, I cringe on the intimacies that people share, but this book is so well written and full of love that I felt inspired by her story. I can truly recommend it. There is a lot of wisdom in her father’s advice, when he said, ‘just deal with what you can and leave the rest for another time.’ Taking her father home was a remarkable thing to do and the book that came out of this experience is well worth it.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

4/5

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The Garden of Evening Mists

by Tan Twan Eng (Murmidon) ISBN: 9781905802623

 

It took Tan, listed for the Man Booker Prize for his debut in 2007, five years to finish this book, but what a masterpiece! Not only the poetic prose, but also the plot kept me entranced, up to the last surprise where everything comes together, literally like the pieces of a puzzle. The Garden of Evening Mists is very well crafted, elegant, and full of symbolism.

 

The story is about Yun Lin, the only survivor of a Japanese camp in Malaya. She made her sister three promises: to escape if she had a chance, to build her the garden they envisioned together and to free her sister’s spirit from wherever she was buried.

 

Yun Lin becomes a judge and prosecutes Japanese war criminals, in the hope of finding out where she and her sister have been incarcerated, but to no avail. She then visits the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, to ask him to design a garden in honour of her sister. He asks Yun Lin to become his apprentice instead. ‘Sparrows rise from the grass into the trees, like fallen leaves returning to their branches.’

 

This book is listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012 again and would definitely get my vote!

 

Pauline Vijverberg

5/5

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Entanglement

by Steven Boykey Sidley (Picador Africa) ISBN: 9781770102149

 

Words are magic. Consider this brilliant title: Entanglement. It means a complicated or compromising relationship and in science, particles that interact with each other, regardless of the distance between them.

 

What a pity that the author has only lightly touched on the meaning and has not used its magic. The only page in the book I liked, was the last one, when he explains the word entanglement.

 

Jared Borowitz is a science professor with no respect for the fools in the world. His mentor is dying and his ex-wife is gay. Sounds interesting, but despite Kevin Bloom’s and Rian Malan’s raving words on the cover, I could not find respect for Steven Boykey Sidley.

 

His debut is pretentious. The protagonist thinks, wonders and imagines too much on every page and the endless summaries and explanations are tedious. Sentences sometimes take up to 9 lines, with words that I have to look up in a dictionary.

 

Occasionally there is good writing, the dialogues flow: then I see what the author was trying to achieve, but most of the time, he is so self-absorbed and has so little respect for his reader, that I think Sidley should stick to whiskey-fuelled dinner party debates or polish his writing skills and give his characters more depth.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

1/5

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The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Edmund de Waal (Vintage) ISBN: 9780099539551

 

With this debut, famous ceramic artist, Edmund de Waal has shown that he is multitalented. He pictures the story of his family history in the 19th century through a collection of netsuke, small Japanese ivory animals and figurines.

 

The book starts in Paris in 1871, where de Waal’s great-uncle Charles Ephrussi moved from Odessa to start collecting art, first Japonisme and then as an advisor of Manet and Renoir amongst others. The Ephrussi family was a wealthy Jewish family and Proust based his character Charles Swann on great-uncle Charles.

 

The story moves to Vienna in 1899 where the collection of 264 netsuke is a wedding gift to cousin Viktor and his wife Emmy. This is the city where de Waal’s grandmother grows up. She is the first female student to graduate from university. Then the horror of spring 1938 in Vienna. The humiliation and devastation of his Jewish family and the destruction of their wealth. The netsuke become a hidden inheritance.

 

I never had to disentangle a sentence or skip over pages, when I read this book, winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award. 

 

I could hear music coming off the pages. Highly recommended.

 

Pauline Vijverberg

4/5

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