Tag Archives: Review

The Magic Paint Review

The Magic Paint Review

The world, as painted by Primo Levi, is a hokey, calloused place. As stuffed full of surreal bureaucracy as it is twisted by mankind’s ineptitude; as prickly as it is accommodating; and as intriguing as it is cruelly frustrating.The Magic Paint by Primo Levi

Like a bowl full of strange fruit, the eight short stories in this collection are no exception, and by carefully eschewing dialogue, Levi gives the stories the ethereal timbre of a voiceless choir. From animals courting smalltalk at a party, through to modern gladiators, the deadly craze of Knall, and the curse of a perfect poem, the stories are hard and sharp, while offering surprising comfort to the morass of modern life.

So if you like your reading with some bite, or to draw blood, or with an aftertaste of the bizarre, then get yourself a copy of this collection, strap yourself down and get ready to watch the psychedelic paint dry.

Through the Wall Review

Through the Wall Review

Bleak and quietly disturbing, the short stories of Petrushevskaya portray a shadowy world that feeds equally on the social ails of the modern world, and the earthy magic of the old kingdom.

The stories in this collection–Through the Wall, The Father, The Cabbage-Patch Mother, Marilena’s Secret, and Anna and Maria–are fine examples of the modern faerie tale: part horror story, part moral hazard, and part something nameless.

As the cast of listeners, lovers, nurses, wizards, and dancers journey through realms of endless woods and monotone cities, you’re left with an inkling it’s only the thinnest veil of hope that keeps the darkness from swallowing us whole.

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

There’s no obvious way to review a collection of Robert Coover’s short stories, no conspicuous handle with which to hold the text, no praise likely to escape being labelled sycophancy, and no criticism that wouldn’t rightly be mocked as bitter jealously. Reviewing Coover is painful, and not because of any pretensions it gives one to write like him, but rather because of the pretensions it instills to read him without being intimidated.

Whether its the romantic irony of the collection’s eponymous story, the fetid titillation of “The Babysitter”, or the frivolous mundanity of “A Pedestrian Accident”, each story reads like you’re smacking yourself in the head with a flail; each leaves an admixture of blood and synovial fluid pouring from your ears; each feels sucking on the metallic teats of a shotgun’s barrels.

So if you’re happy to have your mind wrung out and twisted by a short collection of words, then I recommend you need look no further; if you prefer to keep your sense and thoughts well ordered, then why not go look for something off a best seller list.

The Sexes Review

The Sexes Review

The Sexes is a small collection of Dorothy Parker’s short stories about relationships, and is published as part of Penguin’s mini modern classics series.

The first story, the Sexes, is a masterclass in dialogue: taught, lucid, and oozing with an admixture of cultural, emotional and interpersonal tension. As a singular comment on the complex narrative that exists between the sexes, it is an aggressive shot across the bow against those that seek to deny the differences between the genders.

The Lovely Leave offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the intricacies that lie behind the facade of a loving relationship. An education for those yet to experience loving relationships, and a mirror for everyone else, it’s a pristine example of how to clothe reality in fiction.

Like all collections, not all stories are crafted equally, and the Little Hours is the runt of the litter, a meandering story with little purpose other than to showcase a litany of quotations and the sharp poise of Parker’s prose.

The final two stories, Glory in the Daytime and Lolita, bring the book to an ordered conclusion. Glory in the Daytime is a sharp vignette contrasting the human costs of fame against the droll existence of normalcy, and Lolita is a strange but elegant story of the smallness of attitude fostered by small town life.

The Sexes is an perfectly tempered collection of short stories that not only underlines the genius of Dorothy Parker, but also serves as a intricate lesson about the complexities of human emotion and sexual politics. And apart from being a taut read, it serves as a gentle reminder that–for those willing to look–the richness of life is there to marvel at just beyond the graceful vision of our eyes.

Authonomy.com Review

Authonomy.com Review

I first came across authonomy.com on Book Army’s closing down page, which was perhaps an portentous start. Given Book Army’s failure to attract a significant user base, it seemed there are numerous lessons that publishers could take away, but if my first impressions of Authonomy are right, then publishers still don’t get the Internet. Publishers seem to view the Internet through the same old media lens that they founded their businesses on, and while they understand user generated content and social networking are two faces of the new Zeitgeist, they fail to appreciate how exactly they can tap into the new world of media.

Authonomy suffers from the same problem that bedevilled Book Army, which is it lacks the passionate zeal that separates the great and good from the morass of mediocrity. Authonomy looks like an exercise in corporate expenditure, and while giving the site a fresh skin and adding some of the missing integration features would certainly help, the fact they haven’t pushed those features, suggests it’s a website being run more as a job than as a hard worn destination for the reams of readers and writers browsers.

To give Authonomy one last chance to redeem itself, I visited the site for one last time, only to be greeted by the site’s error page. While this could be taken as evidence that publishers don’t understand or appreciate the 24-7 nature of the Internet, what’s worse is it shows their lack of appreciation for a properly designed error page.

Publishers–and in particular HarperCollins–shame on you.

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

While it’s often mooted that an author’s first novel serves as an autobiographical catharsis for the author, there is little if any consensus about the relationship between an author and their last novel. With this quandary steadfast in his thoughts, Eugene Pota, a world-renown author and aging cassanova, tries to unravel this enigmatic relationship while producing a novel that lives up to the past glories of his literary career, and in particular his first book – which rightly earned him a place in the history of literature.

Tracing the inner workings of the writing process, from the intimate embarrassment of writers block, through to the mystifying otherworldliness of success and the dizzying and perpetual fear of rejection, the issues deftly rendered in Heller’s last, posthumously published novel, transcends the barrier between fiction and autobiography and depicts the mesmerizing struggle between an author and a novel.

As Pota plants an array of weak, desperate plots and follows the subsequently questionable prose that grows uncontrollably weed-like, the heart rending sense of failure looms ever closer and ever larger, as Pota heroically tries to avoid coming to terms with the closing chapter of his career. With every turn of page in a literary race for time, and as the growing failing of Pota’s writing skills becomes apparent, the question that constantly assails the reader is whether Pota can overcome the overwhelming self-doubt and loneliness of writing and arrive at an idea from which to grow his final novel. Dragging the reader through meetings with his past muses, his literary agent and various facets of his life, through until the heady conclusion of the culminating chapter, a foreboding sense looms over the reader that not only Eugene Pota’s career rests on the success of his last book, but also the sanctified career of the Heller himself.

While the simplicity and measured pace of Portrait of the Artist suitably counters the complexity and mayhem of Catch-22, the high quality crafting of the writing, leaves the book as a laudable reminder and farewell from a master of humour. Ably pulling itself out from the shadow of Catch-22 and standing as a provocative example of how artful a final novel can be, it would not only make Eugene Pota proud, but also serves as a deserved slight to GK Chesteron’s ridiculous assertion that: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This is not only a great novel, but it’s also one that tells us the truth about its hero, the truth about its author and the truth of writing process. A definitive read for anyone even vaguely interested in the creative as well as the receptive side of literature.

There is no Definitive in Social Media

There is no Definitive in Social Media

I’d been meaning to write a review of Goodreads.com for a number of weeks, although I’d been plagued by the thought that there’s really no point. That’s not to say it defies analysis, lacks quality, or is any way irrelevant, but rather that it is not the definitive book review site, and therefore is not the social book review site I’ve been trawling the web for.

When I reviewed Book Army I was convinced the idea of a social book review site was a great idea, and while Book Army’s execution is perhaps not as tight as it could’ve been, it promised an excellent place to share reviews. Of course there are plenty of other places to read or publish book reviews, some of them social and some of them not, including: the big names such as Amazon or Facebook’s  weRead application; the traditional print media such as the New York Times; the genre specific sites, such as the Fantasy Book Review, or SF Reviews;  professional review sites, such as BookPage or BookBrowse.com; and the reams of excellent review blogs, such as MostlyFiction or Becky’s Book Review. However, none of them had the combination of presence and social pulse to suggest they might ever become the de facto book review service, and thus none of them has the cachet to catch my interest.

While many of the book review services attract significant numbers of users and reviews, given the number of competing niche services, I’ve slowly realised my goal of finding the definitive service is actually just a misunderstanding on my behalf about what social media is. Although the idea of publishing reviews on more than one service was an anathema to me, it gradually occurred to me I’ve been baulking at the fundamental principle of social media, which is you need to mix communities if you want a diverse and healthy social network. And of course, there’s also never been a definitive source of book reviews, so after weeks of kicking around thinking all these social book review sites were inadequate, it turns out the inadequacy was in me. Oh well, Goodreads.com here I come.

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Book CoverSimone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sat on my bookshelf for 5 years. It was picked up, dusted off, and thumbed through many times, but even after 2 serious attempts to read it from cover to cover the book sat defiant, its secrets safe and its intellectual rigour uncontested. If I’d conceived of a way to maintain my honour and consign the book to the bin, or worse, a charity shop, then it would have gone years ago. However, the pig-headed male in me couldn’t accept  a philosophical tract could be beyond my reading ability or intellect, and so I stubbornly picked up the book again and forced myself on the tome once again.

Having now finished the book, I’m ready, nay forced, to write something of my experience, because although not an easy read The Second Sex is a book that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days. Its blend of history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology makes it an encompassing tract on Women’s place in history and contemporary life, and as such it’s an enticing read for anyone wanting to understand or at least investigate the social division between the genders.

But however enticing the book may be, it is also a hard book, and not because it contains ideas that sit uncomfortably within contemporary male-oriented society, nor because it lays the blame for gender inequality squarely on both genders, but because of the depth of its underlying research and the sheer volume of ideas it generates pertaining to the female condition.

Before my praise becomes indefensibly obsequious, I should point out the book has—like most philosophy books—many rough edges and fallible arguments, including frequent subjective musings from De Beauvoir that are based more on her whim than on reason itself, but these meanderings do nothing to diminish the intellectual spotlight that the book shines on the subject matter.

Although there are many later feminist books and books on gender studies that expand or contradict The Second Sex, this is a book that, above all, extols the feminist virtue of freedom: women’s freedom from sexual service; women’s freedom from the chains of marriage; but also men’s freedom from their gender’s historical role as the counterpart and gaoler of women.

This is not an easy read, but like a mountain there are many routes through the book, be it as a required text for students, or as a dusty tome to be pecked at gradually over years. Although the gender landscape has changed massively since De Beauvoir published The Second Sex, as a thorough examination of woman’s place alongside man in history and society this is a timeless and a critical read. For anyone that wants to grasp why the physical and physiological differences between the genders doesn’t excuse or even require the mental divide that cuts through the ages, then go get yourself a copy and a darned comfy seat.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review


Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

One of my personal goals for 2010 was to read through all the books on the unread books shelf in my lounge, the home for books that either don’t grab my interest, or that are heavy enough  to require significant bravery or brandy before opening. Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse dwelled on the shelf for a year or so, as did Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and an anthology of  Isiah Berlin’s essays, The Proper Study of Mankind, has grown dusty in the corner for at least 3 years.

I was therefore happy to pluck the Hyperotomachi Poliphili, or, as it is sometimes known in English, Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, off the shelf a couple of months ago. A 500-year old text written, purportedly, by Venetian monk Francesco Colonna, it tells the story of Poliphilo as he journeys through his dreams searching for his dream lover, the entrancing Polia. With a recursive plot and a cast full of beautiful nymphs, the text is as charming as it is colourful, and as Poliphilo, and then Polia, wend their way through the fantastic dream-scape, the symbolism builds from a classic veneer into an intricate and integral seam that runs contiguously through the book’s pages.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating and notable facet of the book is Poliphilo’s obsessive focus on architecture. Hardly a page passes when he doesn’t marvel at some form of stonework, architecture, or other construction-based aesthetic  ideal, which coupled with the text’s deep descriptive style would be challenging to even the  most architecturally adroit of contemporary readers. While the architecture is occasionally tempered with narrative flourishes on couture and music, the text is nonetheless a normative example of the Renaissance style and serves as an apt illustration of the cultural revolution that sired it.

Although  my general taste  for simplicity meant the endless symbolism and ceaseless ode to architecture dulled my interest the more I read, as an exposition of the Renaissance Zeitgeist the book serves as a priceless window into a bygone cultural age. So while I’ve now moved the book from my unread books shelf, I’ve been left wondering if I should create  a new shelf for books I’ve read but failed to understand apart from as cultural artefacts, which, of course, would also make the perfect home for Virgina Woolf’s insane ramblings.

Bookarmy.com

Bookarmy.com

Since the age of Web 2.0 heralded in the rise of social networking, there’s been an illimitable stream of social networking sites, each growing broad—and sometimes deep—social graphs, and most of them failing to think of one single interesting thing to do with their complex networks of users.

One website that tries to buck the trend is Book Army, a site sponsored by the publishing industry and looking to build an extensive library of book reviews from its network of keen readers.

The idea is impeccable. Since the majority of users are keen, amateur readers, the site is growing an army of reviewers, such as myself, who are unlikely to be swayed by publisher trends or kickbacks, and are more likely to provide honest reviews than traditional media. As the mass of candid reviews grows, the site attracts a larger group of users, which, coupled with the ability to favour reviews using the site’s social networking, allows users to tailor their experience to fit with their own social graph and ideals.

But while the idea is simple and exciting, I can’t help wonder if perhaps something hasn’t been lost in the execution? While you can read and post reviews on the site, the social features are limited, and the inability to link outside the site makes it difficult for blogs,  such as this one, to work co-operatively with the site. Although BookArmy undoubtedly works and has promise, it seems to lack the passionate zeal that separates those truly successful websites from the throng that litters the Internet’s long tail.

Is Book Army the future of book reviews? Almost definitely not, although it does serve as an excellent illustration of the power that user-generated content and social graphs hold, as they go hand-in-hand and bash at the door of traditional media, a sign that someday soon the madmen might well rule the asylum.