Category Archives: Book Reviews

Brothers In Harms………..Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

……………………Four nights a week millions of us in the UK sit down to watch the TV soap opera detailing the lives, loves and discovering-that-the-woman-you-thought-was-your-sister-is-actually-your-mother-making-the-creep-who’s-just-attacked-your-wife-your-brother revelations that make up the London kitchen-sink drama that is EastEnders. My family are among those millions……and it’s awful, mostly sounding like it’s been scripted by cut and pasing a years worth of tabloid headlines and then getting it polished up by a committee at the end of a night out doing the legendary Circle Line Pub Crawl (i.e. seriously pissed up!)

As they watched, I was reading a stylish, engaging London kitchen-sink drama, and who is better qualified to write that than Peter Ackroyd, author of among other innumerable things, biographies of The Thames and also of London itself! And he puts those qualifications to great use, for Three Brothers is a cracking book!

imageBorn a year apart on the exactly the same day and time in May, the brothers Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway begin life in the humble surroundings of 1950’s Camden Town. Their father is a disappointed and soon to be disillusioned man of literary ambition and their mother mysteriously disappears when the boys are young. So they essentially bring up themselves and each other, shaped in part by their personalities, in part by the streets that surround them and in part by their respective roles within the family.

The story follows their lives in alternating chapters as they grow up and grow increasingly apart. Harry moves into the world of journalism, Daniel into Cambridge academia and Sam drifts onto the streets of London. Their life stories are driven by their very different characters, Harry’s naked ambition, Daniel’s inverted snobbery and Sam’s introversion, which on the one hand drives them down very separate roads from a relatively young age and yet their lives are still interwoven, as if the unseen hand of fate is continually threading their lives together. This weaving their fates together could have been trite and tenuous, but it isn’t. Peter Ackroyd connects up their lives in ways that the characters themselves rarely see, but for the reader, it’s done just often enough, and in just the right places, for it to be a very clever, and very effective plot device.

And it’s all encompassed by the almost sinister and very harsh character of London itself. But it’s less about the city as a place in this book and more about the characters it attracts. It’s a city of risk, of top dogs, underdogs, chancers, winners, losers, bullies and victims. There’s an unsavoury underbelly of racism……. corruption……. racketeering……. prostitution……. you name it, if it’s unpleasant, the London of ‘Three Brothers’ has someone doing it! And those ‘someone’s’ are a collection of great, but dark and unsavoury characters, such as Asher Ruppta the corrupt slum landlord, and Sir Martin Flaxman a newspaper proprietor vile enough to make you cringe ( though perhaps that’s par for the newspaper proprietor course!!)

The only negative for me was that much as I loved the narrative and the characters, at times I found the style of the novel slightly cold. In those biographies of the Thames and of the City, Peter Ackroyd’s style of mixing an almost forensic, scientific approach to facts, with prose which was descriptive and imaginative really brought the river, and the streets to life. Yet in Three Brothers, that same style at times seemed to have the opposite effect, and for me it lacked a little bit of feeling and emotion and occasionally it drained the book of a sense of the feeling behind the menace or the helplessness or the despair. But it’s a relatively minor quibble, for the narrative fairly sweeps you along and for all the unpleasant characters and odd characteristics of the Hanway brothers, I was still riveted by the story of their lives.

Throughout the book there’s an air of loneliness and detachment. Even in the midst of a crowded city like London, the book creates a rather sad, lost in a sea of faces feeling for each of the Three Brothers. It’s that as much as anything that gives it such a gritty realistic feel, and combined with the fact that the story of each brothers life is rich and varied enough to keep you engrossed from start to finish, overall it makes ‘Three Brothers’ a terrific novel.

And while it might be damning it with the faintest of praise, Peter Ackroyd delivers a story here that the scriptwriters of East Enders can only dream of! If only my family were watching stuff as good as this it would be a much better use of their four hours a week!

Book Info

Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Three Brothers’ was published by Vintage and my copy was bought with my own cash!

I can’t remember where I originally read about Three Brothers and then added it to my list of books to try, but on looking again now I think it was prompted by either this review at A Life In Books or from reading Alan Massie’s review in The Scotsman. Either way, if you are interested to find out more about Three Brothers, I’d recommend both reviews.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)







Mastering The Art Of Going Inside To Look Outside………Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

……………I read a phrase in a book once which went something like

“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand……..from the inside looking out it’s hard to explain”

It’s a challenge taken on, and mastered by Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘Nora Webster’, as it takes us into the head and heart of a woman looking out at her family, her life and her world.

imageNora Webster is in her mid forties and is living in Enniscorthy in County Wexford in Ireland. It’s the late 1960’s and Ireland is on the cusp of the political change and strife which will shape it for years to come. But Nora’s change is a much more deeply personal one – recently widowed she has to come to terms with her grief, the growing up of her two young sons, Donal and Connor, and her two older daughters, the expectations of her neighbours and her extended family about “the widow’s role”, the need to earn money to keep her and her children, and the constant memories of her husband Maurice, who’s died at fairly young age of TB.

In terms of a plot there’s not much to it in a sense – the most exciting, edgy things which happen in it are Nora joining the union and her giving a “piece of her mind’ to the woman who terrorises the female office staff in the place where Nora works. But there’s no big bang plot here. The growing problems in Northern Ireland are there as part of the story – but they are in the background, on TV, in the conversations, or in her daughters emerging political and social views. But they are not central to the story which is instead very much focused on the minutiae of Nora’s life and her thoughts – she gets her hair dyed…….she joins a choir……..she goes into Dublin to shop. But it works because it’s beautifully written and it’s kept realistic and simple.

But that doesn’t mean it meanders. Nora is struggling to come to terms with Maurice’s death, fighting for control of her reactions and other people’s reactions to her as ‘newly widowed’. She’s having to juggle that effort to keep going with trying to manage the impact on her family, especially on her two young sons, one of whom has begun to wet the bed and the other has developed a stammer. And yet, even in these struggles, there is a gentle, almost lilting, dreamy quality to the writing that makes you want to cheer every step forward Nora makes, forgive every mistake she makes. She’s a character who brought out the alpha-male in me – she’s like a mid-twentieth century Tess of the D’Urbervilles!

It’s a novel which I found captivating, because the characters seem to be so real and alive. It’s also a novel that will no doubt resonate for many readers because it’s so sharply observed I think anyone would find references to their own childhood, family or home. I loved the speech patterns and rhythms in the dialogue, for it reminded me of my Gran….I grew up in a world awash with phrases like those in the book – full of “Och, now Nora!” and “Well!!!!! You should see that Peggy Gibney!”. It also perfectly captures the feel of community, good and bad, in a place like Enniscorthy – it’s rich in memories, a place where everyone knows (or at least thinks they know) everybody else and their business, and it’s a place where everybody has opinions about everything!

Colm Toibin - he writes better than me but my desk is tidier than his!
Colm Toibin – he writes better than me but my desk is tidier than his!

I’ve read a few of Colm Toibin’s novels and always enjoyed them. In some ways Nora Webster reminded me of Eilis Lacey in his novel Brooklyn in the way that both women have an underlying steel about them which belies the perceptions others have of them. There was also the obvious connections with his last novel ‘The Testament of Mary’ (which I LOVED!) not just in the fact that both characters were coming to terms with grief but also in the fact that they were having to adjust as much to the feelings of others as to themselves. And while I’m hardly qualified to make the judgement, he seems to me to be brilliant at capturing the heart and mind of a woman and I haven’t read any male author do it better than he does with Nora Webster.

In an age when much of our popular culture seems obsessed with histrionics and exaggerated expressions of emotion, this is a book that makes you realise there is every bit as much, if not more real drama, in everyday life itself. Nora Webster is a beautifully written, but nevertheless very ordinary story, about a very ordinary woman – and that’s what makes it, and her, so extraordinary. For my first book of 2015, it absolutely got my year off to a wonderful, magical start!

Book Info

“Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin was published by Viking. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.

At the same time I also listened to an unabridged audiobook version of the novel which was produced by Penguin. It is magnificently narrated by the actress Fiona Shaw……

Fiona Shaw - great actress, wonderful narrator.....and a bloody good cloakroom attendant too apparently!
Fiona Shaw – great actress, wonderful narrator…..and a bloody good cloakroom attendant too apparently!

…….and her wonderful voicing of the characters added something extra special to this very special story. Again I bought that audiobook version from Audible.

Colm Toibin is of course a literary heavyweight these days so there are reviews in the press in abundance. However if you are interested in reading a bit more about the book, I’d recommend a few blogs instead of the broadsheets. There are again a lot of blog reviews of the book to choose from but I’d recommend those at Hair Past A Freckle (surely one of the best blog names ever!), Plastic Rosaries, and at Lady Fancifull

The novel had been some years in the writing, in some ways reflecting Toibin’s own mother’s life after the death of his father. Here he is being interviewed about the background to the novel in a video at The Guardian

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)









Hail Mary, Full of Grace…and Mary…………………..Book Review of Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you… it’ll be alright’.

Dawn over Coniston Water
Dawn over Coniston Water

John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.

Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg
Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.

Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.

It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.

In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!

And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.

I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents,  a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!

Melvyn trying harder to look more handsome and more intellectual than me - get in line old boy!
Melvyn trying hard to look more handsome and more intellectual than me – get in line old boy!

Book Info

My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!

Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.

After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013

And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)



I’ll Do My Crying In The Train!…………..And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

……………………………………..I never learn!!!

I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and wept a bucket-load at the end. I read his next novel ‘A Thousand Setting Suns’ and wept TWO bucket-loads at the end. So with about thirty pages to go of his most recent book, And The Mountains Echoed, you’d think I’d have been savvy enough not to finish it while on the Central Line on the way to work. But no……….. throwing caution to the tear-stained wind I decided to finish it on the train………….cue more bucket-loads!!! So to my fellow-commuters who watched me weep my way into Oxford Circus my apologies for breaking the unspoken rule that the commute to London will always be silent and solemn – and my particular apologies to the bloke who gruffly asked ‘all right mate?’ only to recoil in disgust when I stammered ‘…….it’s…….it’s………it’s…………’ and pointed speechless to my book!!!! In my defence I couldn’t help it, for if ever a writer seemed to know how to pluck at my heartstrings ( and then twist, pull, contort, bend and tear them asunder!), then it’s definitely Khaled Hoimagesseini!

However it’s not just moving me to barely controlled sobs that And The Mountains Echoed has in common with the previous books. What it also has in common is that I loved it every bit as much as I did The Kite Runner and Thousand Setting Suns!! In my eyes this is simply a marvellous storyteller at work, drawing you in as reader so that you are identifying so closely with the characters you really do feel every twist and turn in their lives and relationships.

The story begins with Abdullah and his younger sister Pari, setting out on a journey with their father, who has recently remarried after their mother’s death. They are on their way to visit Kabul from their village home in Afghanistan. Their lives are little more than a daily struggle for existence against desperate poverty and a hard unforgiving landscape. But Pari and her brother have created their own brand of happiness in their childhood, and the bond between them is as strong as it could be.

After their first day of walking to the capital their father helps them settle for the night with a story about a man forced to offer one of his children as a sacrifice to a djinn visiting their village. The man has a favourite – his youngest child, but he leaves the choice of which child to sacrifice to fate – and fate chooses that favourite. Distraught thereafter the man eventually sets out on a journey to face the djinn who killed his child – but when he finally tracks him down the djinn shows him the child alive and happy, living with other children in an Elysian paradise. And so the man faces a choice – take his child and return it to the life of abject poverty from which it came or leave it behind in the paradise in which it now lives. And of course Abdullah and Pari’s father has a motive for the story, for on reaching Kabul he will give away his daughter Pari to be looked after by a wealthy Kabul family and to be raised as their child. In doing so he will tear Abdullah away from his young sister Pari, who is by far the thing he loves most in the world. So begins their new and very different, very separate journeys through life.

But from what you might call a relatively standardised approach to introducing the story, the book very cleverly and very effectively chooses not to simply follow the separate lives of Pari and her brother as a straightforward, chronological narrative. Instead he weaves the story of their lives through that of others, who in some way are involved in the fate of the brother and sister. The story also shifts back and forward in time. So for example there’s the story of Nabi, the housekeeper to the wealthy family in Kabul who adopt Pari and who is also the step-brother of Pari and Abdullah’s father, half-French, emotionally tortured and broken Nila Wahdati who becomes Pari’s adopted mother ( and who was my favourite character in the book because perhaps she stood out for the damage being as much self-inflicted as anything) and the story of Markos, a Greek surgeon performing plastic surgery reconstructions on Afghan civilians caught up in the terror which comes in the wake of the US and British Invasion of Afghanistan, who comes to live in the Kabul house once occupied by Pari, Nila and Nabi. As you’d expect with a storyteller as good as Khaled Hosseini, each of these individual stories are great in their own right, but the sum of their parts is something much more wonderful!

Steve McCurry's iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80's
Steve McCurry’s iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80’s

You could I guess make a case that the three books having a lot in common runs the risk that his books have become a bit formulaic. There are certainly common themes here such as the effect of change, politics and religion on the people of Afghanistan, the tragic and difficult lives of some people, the awful impact of the wars, the way old Afghanistan almost seems to reach out and pull back at attempts to create a newer Afghanistan, or the influence of outside Western culture and politics. But he’s such a wonderful storyteller that his books never feel formulaic in the least to me. Instead they are populated by characters who are engaging, powerful and utterly believable. One of the strengths in this book is that there are so many rich and varied characters, and unusually for a book of such variety, I found myself liking and believing in every single one of them.

The effects of war, the British-US invasion and ongoing war of terror between the Taliban and the West cast a shadow over this book as they do the others. Khaled Hosseini makes his points though in a subtle, almost understated way – it’s more that the politics and his view of it is nuanced into the story rather than tackled head-on.

And perhaps ultimately it was a good thing that I got to have a good cry on the Central Line last week for that’s a testimony to just how good this book is. When his characters are in despair, you feel it, when they have moments of optimism and hope you feel it, and of course you feel it when they search and long for reunion between the brother and sister who’ve been scattered far apart by fates. I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough… the beginning of the book the father says to Abdullah and Pari ‘So you want me to tell you a story?……..then I’ll tell you one!”………… to borrow that phrase, if you want someone to tell you a story………………….. go buy a big box of tissues and let Khaled Hosseini tell you the story of ‘And The Mountains Echoed’!

Book Info

My copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ was published by Bloomsbury and bought with my own hard earned cash!

Having sold 38 million with his first two books, Mr Hosseini’s work is popular! So as you’d expect there’s a vast array of blog posts about it out there but if you wanted to as a bit more about what others had to say about it I’d recommend The Book Musings because…..I liked it!

If you want to hear what Khaled Hosseini has to say about his books, Afghanistan and America among other things then he recently did this interview with Al Jazeera America.

Book Rating Out Of Ten ( you can find info on my rating scale here)






When Fate Lends More Than Just A Hand!……Book Review of The Art Of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein

……..I’d expected to be challenged in reading this book, by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge named “the willing suspension of disbelief”, because one of the two main characters in the book is Enzo, a talking dog who is the narrator of the story. So was I able to suppress any tendency to simply think this wasn’t plausible………………………………. …………………..a little surprisingly not only was I able to suspend my disbelief it was easy because I really loved Enzo the talking dog!

Alas while I could suspend my disbelief for Enzo, I couldn’t do it for the other main character, Denny Swift, Enzo’s owner….for this guy must be the unluckiest character ever in fiction. This is a man so beset by woes and tragedy they ought to be considering renaming Murphy’s Law….this is a man so mired in catastrophe and ill fate that 2000 years ago, Publilius Syrus, the Roman writer must have been thinking of Denny Swift when he said “Fate is not satisfed with inflicting one calamity!”. For nobody in fiction or real life has ever suffered quite the catalogue of calamities that beset Denny Swift………..surely not!

Costis Mitsotakis thinks he was unlucky when he was the sole inhabitant WITHOUT A TICKET when the his whole Spanish won the lottery.....but he's not as unlucky as Denny Swift!
Costis Mitsotakis thought he was unlucky when he was the sole inhabitant WITHOUT A TICKET when the whole Spanish village where he lived won hundreds of millions in their national lottery…..but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift!

Enzo tells their story when he is in his twilight years and he has two things keeping him going – firstly his memories of life with Denny, Denny’s wife Eve and their daughter Zoe and secondly his belief that when he dies he will be reincarnated as a human. Enzo charts their ups (of which they have a few!) and their downs (of which they have WAY too many to mention!) – but he does so much more than simply tell their story, for Enzo the dog observes, analyses, interprets, philosophises and above all feels, in ways which he thinks are like a human, but are in reality way beyond what most people would notice!

Denny Swift
‘Calamity’ John Lyne thought he was unlucky after 16 major accidents including three car crashes, getting hit by lightning AND trapped by a rock fall……but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift!

Denny and Enzo start with a shared passion – cars – or more specifically racing them! From video games, to races on TV, to his stints in a touring car, Denny is obessed with racing cars in all forms of motorsport and Enzo shares his love and his ambition, charting his desperate efforts to make it to the peak of the sport as a racing driver! Then Denny falls in love with Eve who doesn’t become a shared passion though but when Eve gives birth to a daughter, Enzo and Denny can definitely get back to sharing their passion for her almost as much as their passion for racing cars.

Roy Sullivan, a US Park Ranger pronably thought
Roy Sullivan, a US Park Ranger probably thought he was unlucky in defying odds of 22 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 to 1 (that’s 22 SEPTILLION TO ONE!) in getting hit by lightning SEVEN times – but he’s not as unlucky as Denny Swift as the calamities he suffers are well beyond odds of 22 Septillion to one!

The bond between Enzo and Denny is exceptionally strong, and as a dog owner and dog lover myself, I think Garth Stein brilliantly captures the all encompassing and unconditional love that we dog owners have for our four legged family members. So when Eve has an accident at home cutting her hand and is subsequequently diagnosed with a serious illness, the story has its tragic contrast with which to test that unbreakable bond between dog and master. And had he stopped there it would have really worked for me because initially this introduction of the dark heart in the form of Eve’s illness was really well used to show just how Enzo steps up to the plate and can be relied on. Alas…..Eve’s illness is only the first in what soon becomes an endless line of tragedy waiting to rein in the hapless Denny Swift

Beyond the difficulty I had in just accepting the appaling run of fate that befalls Denny, it seemed to me to also distort other things in order to ‘fit’ the story. So for example, beautiful, loving, affectionate Eve’s parents turn out to be a cross between Cruella De Ville, and The Twits! Their characters are turned into what for me felt like almost a charicature. There are also doggedly-loyal mates, sleazeball lawyers, inept policemen, crazy attention-seeking kids and even the top brass from Ferrari’s home factory at Marinello in Italy put in appearances! It’s a bit ‘chuck the kitchen-sink at it’ and for me it just undid all the work that had been put into the character of Enzo the dog.

In fairness Croatian Music teacher Frane Zelak
In fairness Croatian Music teacher Frane Zelak gives Denny a run for the title of unluckiest man to ever live with his surviving a fatal train crash, an airplane crash, getting hit by a bus, two exploding cars and then jumping out at the last minute as a third car plunged 300 feet down a mountain…..he runs Denny close on the bad luck stakes…….however with his first lottery ticket he went and won over 1 million dollars and there’s NO WAY Denny Swift could ever have a happy ending like that…or could he?!

Enzo the dog is simply great – I loved him. He’s very sharp and shrewd, never short of a thought or opinion, he experiences every emotion we do and then some, even though he’s a dog! His observations on the behaviour, imagemannerisms and speeches of we humans are really very clever and amusing, but where he really comes into his own for me is his little insights into what dogs think of being a dog, his judgements and explanations about the behaviour of dogs are very funny and by turns I also found his affection and love for his family to be moving and touching. Against all my expectations he’s just so believable. Denny on the other hand was just an irritation to me – he’s either inspid and passive or he’s a bit John McClane in the Die Hard films!

In the end The Art of Racing In The Rain fell down for me because so much sublety, craft, emotion and complexity had gone into the character of Enzo that there was nothing left for the other characters, who are all a bit wooden, cliched or one dimensional as a result. It’s not an unpleasant experience to read Racing In The Rain but equally I didn’t find it the emotional experience that I think others may have done. But if you’re a dog lover read it anyway just for the sheer joy you’ll get from Enzo – and if you’re like me it might just make that love you have for your own dog even stronger – I’ll never look at my dog Beau in quite the same way ever again – and there are very few books I can say that about!!!!!!!

My dog Beau - and Enzo makes me realise there's more going on behind those eyes than "Are there any good sticks around?!"
My dog Beau – and Enzo makes me realise there’s more going on behind those eyes than “Are there any good sticks around?!”

Book Info

The Art of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein was published in 2009 in the UK by Harper Collins and I bought it with my own hard earned dosh!

There are several bloggers who’ve already reviewed ‘The Art of Racing In The Rain’ so if you want to find out more about it you could try Books On The Table (where you’ll get a review of Art of Racing AND another Garth Stein book ‘A Sudden Light’ or try Lovely Literature where you will get both a review and LOTS of great photos of dogs!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Overall, on my rating scale, I’d give Enzo on his own a ten! Alas I’d give Denny Swift a one! So overall I’ve split the difference!




Mum’s The Word!………….Book Review of Restless by William Boyd

……..Female spy novels are a bit like London buses at the moment – I don’t read a book with a female spy protagonist for years and then two come along in quick succession! On the back of reading Jenny Rooney’s excellent ‘Red Joan’ I picked up a second-hand bookshop copy of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’, telling the story of Sally Gilmartin, an ageing middle-class woman living quietly in middle England in 1976, who suddenly hands her daughter Ruth a folder of pages titled ‘The Story of Eva Delectorskaya’. When a puzzled Ruth asks who Eva Delectorskaya is, Sally simply responds “Me…….I am Eva Delectorskaya”.

10restlessHaving kept her ‘secret life’ just that for so long, there is of course a reason for Sally’s sudden decision to share her past with her daughter thirty years later – it’s a past that has come back to threaten her and she needs her daughters help. Through a combination of chapters telling the 1976 story from Ruth’s perspective, and a series of chapters in the third person telling Eva’s 1940’s story, William Boyd sets out a really cracking plot of a beautiful Russian emigre who is recruited by British intelligence in 1939 in Paris immediately after her brother Kolia’s funeral. She is ‘run’ by spymaster Lucas Romer, who becomes more than just a handler to Eva. He becomes teacher, mentor, confidante and lover. Eva moves to New York as part of the British Security Co-ordination, a massive World War Two counter-espionage progamme designed to spy on pro-Nazi movements in America while at the same time driving a propoganda campaign focused on levering the Americans into joining the Second World War. Eventually betrayed, Eva has to rely on her training to first escape with her life and then to reinvent herself.

There’s no real spoiler in that plot summary for this is a story with so much going on there’s no chance of doing more than skimming it in a review, though perhaps the fact that it’s got so so much going on might be the weakness in it too. But at it’s core it’s a really, really good spy thriller and as long as you don’t go looking for more than that you won’t be disappointed. I loved the intricacies of the art of spying in the book almost as much as I loved the action and the almost inevitable twists and turns in the story. At times I was enjoying the sheer thrill of the action so much I found some of it a little distracting and unnecessary – Ruth has a history with radical politics, there’s a casual affair with an Iranian student-cum-logder, there’s a minor link between Ruth and Baader-Meinhof terrorists and then there’s that love affair between Eva and Lucas – all these things are chucked into the pot but they seemed a bit superfluous to me – they don’t really add much to the story and I didn’t get any sense of the ‘feelings’ attached – in essence for me what’s in the book stands or falls by the extent to which it contributes to the action – or to put that another way as an example the affair between Eva and Lucas doesn’t feel very real or very important but in the grand scheme of the plot it doesn’t really matter!

Now that's what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)
Now that’s what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)

There’s nothing surprising in the book, nothing pretentious and nothing forced – it’s just a spy thriller. At times it can make it seem a wee bit formulaic, a bit predictable and all low-brow James-Bond-esque stuff. I can see why that might annoy some readers – but for me, as a man who loves James Bond, a man who could get lost in a Le Carre and not look up between page one and the end, well it was pretty much not only what I expected but if I’m honest what I had hoped to find. Here is a short sample, as Lucas Romer does some final preparations before Eva becomes Eve Dalton, British spy….

‘What’re these for? I thought I was Eve Dalton?’

He explained. Everyone who worked for him, who was in his unit, was given three identities. It was a perk, a bonus – to be used as the recipient saw fit. Think of them as a couple of extra parachutes, he said, a couple of getaway cars parked nearby if you ever felt the need to use them one day. They can be very handy, he said, and it saves a lot of time of you have them already.

Eva put her two new passports in her handbag and for the first time felt a little creep of fear climb up her spine. Following-games in Edinburgh were one thing; clearly whatever Romer’s unit did was potentially dangerous. She clipped her handbag shut. ‘Are you allowed to tell me a bit more about this unit of yours?’

‘Oh, yes. A bit. It’s called AAS’ he said. ‘Almost an embarassing acronym, I know, but it stands for Actuarial and Accountancy Services’

‘Very boring’


It reads like a classic British 1950’s era spy movie – and for me that gives it a really authentic air. That coupled with the detail and research into the activities of British Intelligence during World War Two in the US make for a fascinating, almost film-noir feel to the book in places. William Boyd’s books are a fairly recent discovery for me and up to now I’ve really enjoyed them, as much for the literary feel of the writing as the stories in themselves……this was different….with Restless there was something missing in the literary sense……but to me it didn’t ultimately matter. As a straightforward, take it at face value spy story, it’s a great plot and for that reason alone, ‘Restless’ is well worth a read.

Book Info

‘Restless’ by William Boyd was published by Bloomsbury. I bought this with my own hard-earned dosh for the princely sum of £1.99 in my local Oxfam Bookshop!

As it’s been out since around 2006, there are as you’d guess a plethora of reviews out there on the book. But in the book blog world, if you want to read a bit more about ‘Restless’, then I’d recommend you have a look at Late Nights With Good Books and The Book Heap. It was a much praised novel when it was released, not only shortlisted for the Costa Prize in 2006, but also shortlisted for the Richard and Judy British Book Award no less in 2007!

‘Restless’ was also turned into that BBC series that I mentioned above – not sure when it was shown in the UK but I can’t believe we missed it in our house as it stars Rufus Sewell, who’s pretty popular with the women chez moi!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)




The Restoration Man!………..Merivel A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain

………..There’s a great Guinness ad line “Good things come to those who wait!’. And though it’s true that a beautiful pint of Guiness is worth the wait for it to be poured, settled and then finished – it’s not half as worth waiting for as the return of Rose Tremain’s wonderful fictional creation Robert Merivel. It’s been a 25 year wait for me to finally read this sequel to Tremain’s great 1989 novel “Restoration” but Merivel’s return is as engaging, and as loveable as his beginning.

merivel-picRobert Merivel is a 17th century physician at the court of Charles II – he’s part-dandy, part-jester and part fall-guy for the moods, whims and of course sexual appetite of King Charles in that first brilliant novel. This follow up sees him greyer, older and maybe, even for Merivel, dare I say just a little bit wiser? But only a little – for the love of drink, an excuse to drink more, and the inclination to revel in sex and the female form at even the slightest opportunity is still there in abundance in Merivel – this is a man with a lot of vices and he’s still not afraid to use them!.

The story picks Merivel’s life up many years after he has left Charles’ inner sanctum for the seemingly quieter and certainly less debauched surroundings of his Norfolk estate. His sham marriage to Charles mistress is a thing of distant memory though his regret that the marriage failed is neither distant nor forgotten. He seems to be moving towards his old age with a slightly gentler and slightly less frenetic lifestyle – and in some respects he’s moving to older age with a degree of thanks that he’s actually survived this long! He’s slightly more financially secure than before and his daughter, on the verge of moving from a girl to a woman, is the apple of his eye. He’s got much to be contented with, but if Merivel is anything, he’s a man of defects – and he wears them on his tailored, ruffled sleeve! There’s a fragility to that financial security for example for it’s still dependent on the grace and favour of Charles, he’s less than easy about his daughter’s future, and he’s still a man in search of something – he’s just never quite sure what.

With the kings blessing, he heads for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles where he hopes to find favour and fulfilment with the Sun King. Being Merivel what he actually finds is a new mistress and so he embarks of this wonderfully gaudy, almost comic romp through France and back to England. It’s just as terrifically entertaining a charge through his confused morality and his sexual proclivities as the first book was. But this time there’s also a sense of sadness and pathos – there’s a growing sense of decay and things coming to an end for Merivel and alongside him a similar feeling of the beginning of the end for Merivel’s most trusted manservant Will, for his lovers old and new, for Charles and even for England as a society. It’s a novel which captures a man at the heart of a monumental change – and it’s as much a change to what’s going on inside him as it is a change to what’s going on around him.

As ever Rose Tremain’s writing ranges brilliantly. At times it is almost farcically light and funny, such as Merivel conquering the heart and hemline of Madame de Flamanville at Versailles, who brings with her a publicly-suppressed but privately insatiable gay husband in charge of Louis’ Swiss Guards!!!!! At other times it is the dark and brooding detail of Merivel performing emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from a woman’s breast. But whatever she describes, she does it with such style and a terrific eye for detail and mood.

This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!
This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!

The sequel also gives Merivel much more depth to his emotions – the man who can’t resist the chance for quick and easy sex is still there – he just doesn’t come to terms with it quite as easily as he once did. That’s perhaps what makes Merivel so irresistible as a

This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!
This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!

character – he’s deeply flawed but he knows it – and he’s not without his redeeming features either. Merivel isn’t just a man of his time but in many ways is a man of any time and his struggles and worries, his problem in coming to terms with death, decay and what he sees of his life as he looks back would be as true of my generation in the 21st century as they are of Merivel and his generation in the 17th century – though fortunately the exception is that with my generation of ageing men in our 50’s in 2014, we don’t fornicate quite as openly on public transport as Merivel does!!!!!!!!!!! – at least it doesn’t happen on the Tube trains and buses I use!

At times as I read Merivel, I was reminded of the lyrics to Man Of Our Times by Genesis on the Duke album –

I’m one of many, I speak for the rest but I don’t understand / Tonight, tonight, oh tonight, tonight / He brings another day, another night, another fight / Well there’s another day done and there’s another gone by / He’s a man of our times, a man of our times / Tonight, tonight, oh he’s burning bright / He’s a man of our times, he’s a man of our times / And in the beating of your heart there is another beating heart

And that’s what makes Rose Tremain’s writing in Merivel so great – in the beating of his heart is a sense that if you’d be born in a different time and place it might just have been the beating of your own heart! And it would have been a blast!

Book Info

“Merivel – A Man of His Time” by Rose Tremain was published by Chatto and Windus Books. I bought it with my own dose – and it’s worth every penny!

The first Merivel book, ‘Restoration’ was published back in 1989. It was nominated back then for the Booker Prize, but it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful ‘The Remains Of The Day’.

If you’re interested Rose Tremain did an interview with the Telegraph back in 2012 about Merivel and writing the sequel to Restoration. It’s a book that’s been widely review – you won’t find anything  reviewed on my blog that was done before, and done better elsewhere (except possibly my review of the excruciatingly bad biography by David Ginola the footballer perhaps!). If you’re interested in reading what others thought of Merivel, you should try the reviews at Lady Fanciful and at Little Reader Library though be aware I chose them because I liked them and they broadly share my view that Merivel is really good!!!!!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)


What’s That Coming Over The Hill? Is It…………A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

……….About 12 months ago I read a post on Annabel’s House of Books blog, entitled “Rewarding YA Books for Grown Ups…Let Me Persuade You”. It set out a number of YA books she recommended – but I’d already decided YA wasn’t for me. She did try to persuade me but I’m too smart for that. Now that I’ve read A Monster Calls, a book I’ve read such great things about time and time again, I realise looking back that the word I needed wasn’t “too smart” but “too pig-headed”. Because I thought A Monster Calls was every bit as good as everyone else says it is!

IMG_1687It tells the story of Conor, a twelve year old boy who wakes from a nightmare to find a monster at the window. And it wants something Conor can’t give it….the truth about what’s in that recurring nightmare of his. It visits Conor a number of times sharing truths through a series of stories it tells Conor, and every time the moral isn’t quite what you or Conor expect. In return all it asks is that when the time comes Conor will tell it the truth – it’s a truth it already knows but it wants to hear Conor say it.

Conor’s father and mother are separated, his father living with his new family in America and Conor desperately close to his critically sick mother. There;s a grief and loss at the heart of the book right from the start and it never goes away. It’s clear how it will end from the very beginning – Conor’s story is utterly heartbreaking and yet also incredibly heartening.


I’m a man of 52 and it’s been a bloody long time since I was in the shoes, body and mind of a teenager in any shape or form never one mind looking at life down the lens which Conor looks through. So I’ve no right to say how well Patrick Ness captures what it’s like to be a 12 year old boy – but if he’s as accurate in this as he is in his depiction of family tragedy and grief then I’d think he’ll come close to having got that 12 year old voice spot on. The book flows effortlessly. It’s hauntingly sad but never cliched or cloying and at times there’s just enough edge to the book to give it that ability to pull your emotions back and forward.

A Monster Calls has won award after award – in fact just about the only thing it didn’t win was the Mens 100m at the 2012 Olympics (though to be fair I was watching Usain Bolt and so I wouldn’t be surprised if A Monster calls finished second!). But when you read it you can see why – and I can see exactly what young adults would love about this – and in fairness to Annabel and that post of hers twelve months ago, there is so much for adults to love in this book too! This is the first time I’ve dipped my toe into the burgeoning waters of YA Fiction – it won’t be the last! Pig-Headed No More!!!!!

Book Info

“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd was published by Walker Books. I made it my first investment in YA with my adult cash!

The book is illustrated by Jim Kay and they are simply wonderful. They have such power and yet there’s a subtlety to them and as a consequence they strike just the right balance for the monster between being menacing and being enticing. Jim Kay himself has a recently interesting site where you can read about he creates those illustrations in A Monster Calls. I was secretly delighted to read of his use of blown ink in his illustrations – it was a technique I used to teach to kids in my class who always loved doing it and were always impressed by their results! There isn’t any doubt for me that the illustrations are an integral and indispensable part of A Monster Calls – its a great story but the images make it even greater!

Patrick Ness himself has a website, and from it I gleaned that A Monster Calls is being made into a film with Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson as the Monster apparently. But that snippet of info aside, his site is also well worth a look over.

A Monster Calls is much heralded, critically acclaimed and has a pile of awards – too many to list – but take my word for it it’s won a shitload of prizes!

If you are interested in what other bloggers had to say about A Monster Calls you couldn’t do better than read Claire at Word by Word, and Queen Ella Bee Reads.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)


There’s No Knowing What Might Be Newly Held…………..With A Zero At Its Heart by Charles Lambert

………That is part of the last paragraph of the last page of this beautifully written book by Charles Lambert – and yet there’s no risk of any spoiler in quoting it!!!

Because he is reading through his mother he has no guarantee that what was read yesterday and the day before that is what will be read today, although the story is always the same. The act of reading is an unfolding and there’s no knowing what might be newly held within each fold.

IMG_1685Cards on the table/page from the beginning – I absolutely fucking LOVED this book! (Apologies but sometimes we Glaswegians get a wee bit sweary when we’re excited about something!). I’ve read it the last three days on the way in and out of work on the Tube in the midst of a pretty manic time at work – and every time I picked this up I found something to make me think, or ponder (I like to ponder!), or smile, or remember, or laugh, or just feel better about the world. It was a joy to read – a delicate, spellbinding, gentle, joy to read!

Its structured into themes like “Travel or a Harp Embedded” and “Money or Brown Sauce Sandwiches”, and within each theme there are 10 parts and each part has a hundred and twenty words. At least it says there are one hundred and twenty on the book cover and even though I was a bit of a dickhead and actually counted the words in the first paragraph (and there were 120!), from that point on I took the publishers word for it! I thought I might try it for my review – then I realised that the difference would be Charles Lambert writes 120 of the most beautifully perfect and sublimely put together words, whereas I’d just write 120 words of shite! But his 120 are worth it every time!

The sections don’t flow chronologically and their only link is to the theme of the section. At the start my brain told me it wouldn’t work and I half expected it to be all artsy-fartsy, navel-gazing, crap – not a bit of it. It’s certainly a collection of fragments of a life, told through each theme and yet, for all that each paragraph is a fragment of memory, the book is never fragmented to read. Far from it. It really does hook you early on, wrap itself around you and then holds you in all the way to the very last word.

It’s gorgeously written but it’s also sharp and in places it confronted me in some ways. As I read it what impressed me was how observant it seemed – it had the feel of someone who’d been living their life and really looked at it as they lived it! And I guess that was the thing it did most for me – it made me think that I spend a lot of time looking but maybe all too often I don’t see much! It’s been a long time since I read a book which forced me to stop and look away from the words and reflect as much as this book did.

Aforementioned Brown Sauce Sandwich - now that's what I call a memory!
Aforementioned Brown Sauce Sandwich – now that’s what I call a memory!

I loved its combination of the trivial and even mundane parts of life being mixed among the life-changing and powerful moments. You follow the author through fragments from his family life and childhood, his adolescence, his sexuality, his loves, and his musing on life as he reflects back at the point of the deaths of first his father and then his mother. But intermingled with those, you also get a glimpse of films he remembers, books he’s read, and his recollection of buying a name tag for his cat!

With A Zero At Its Heart is without doubt one of the very best books I’ve read so far this year. When I got to the end and read the acknowledgements I got a sense that a large part of it must be autobiographical – though I may have got that wrong. But to be honest, who cares!!!!! I loved the fact that, autobiographical or imagined, he wrote these beautiful passages down and I got the absolute joy and pleasure to spend three days reading them!

Book Info

Charles Lambert’s “With A Zero At Its Heart” was published by The Friday Project for Harper Collins. My copy was a bloody good use of my  own hard-earned cash!

I initially read a blog post about the book at Savidge Reads. As half the world reads his blog you have probably read it too – but in case you haven’t use the link to see what he thought of it.

If you are interested in reading a little more about Charles Lambert, he’s got his own WordPress site which you can find here. It’s a really interesting site – this review has taken me about six hours more than it should have done as I spent most of it on his site!! 

If you are more interested in what fellow readers might have thought of it try reviews at Black Heart Magazine,  and at Writers Little Helper.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)


A Chinese Hope Burn!……………………………Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

There have always been places that cast an almost hypnotic spell over people. Their dazzle draws the less fortunate to their bright lights, like moths to a flame, in search of fame, success, wealth, and riches. Trite as it may sound, I came myself to London with a degree of simplistic ‘streets paved with gold’ in my thinking. But surely no city can ever before has glittered quite as gaudily, and in some ways quite as menacingly, as the Shanghai at the heart of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash AwThe story follows 5 Malaysians and the fortunes they seek to make, or to try keep, amidst the get-rich-quick-and-every-can-be-successful lure of Shanghai. Walter Chao is part motivational guru and part con man, author of a 21st self-help bible called the Five Star Billionaire, a step-by-step guide to making it big in China – or anywhere else for that matter. Phoebe is a by-day dreamer and by night call girl with dreams inspired and fed by Walters book. Gary is a manufactured Cowell-like pop star on the verge of moving to superstardom, compensating for the vacuous nature of his music with shit-hot marketing, Yinghui is an ex-rich girl, moving from archetypal airhead to sharp-suited businesswoman on the cusp of further commercial glories and Justin is the head of a family conglomerate putting his own morals on the back burner in favour of his extended family’s values – and that’s the problem, for Justins’ is a family which hasn’t GOT any family values, unless you count profit margins!

neon message 1

The stories of Justin, Yinghui, Gary and Phoebe are all unfurled and then finely stitched together by the almost invisible thread that is Walter Chao. It’s a turbulent ride flitting between the five to describe their contrasting and sometimes interconnected successes and failures and as they do the book plays wonderfully with your emotions as the reader, frequently setting you up to like or loathe one character one chapter and then flipping your sympathies or frustrations over in the next chapter. There are some pretty radical changes for some of the characters during the novel while others tend to sway and drift more. But it’s always powerful and absorbing.

Each of the characters is strong and so their stories are all engaging. They each have such different traits, back stories and futures, but they pulled me in and had me essentially rooting for them one way or another, even though you sense from early on that this might not be a “and every body lived happily ever after” book! The cleverest feat he pulls off with the characters is the way he slowly weaves connections into their lives. Given that Shanghai is a city of over 14 million people, it’s no mean feat to pull 5 seemingly disconnected characters together without making it all look rather trite or tenuous. But here it’s brilliantly done – and beautifully balanced with just enough connectivity to keep you on the side of the characters and making sure you never tip into thinking “nah…that would never happen!”

Perhaps the only character who didn’t pull me in to the same degree was Walter Chao, but if I’m honest that was because I thought he wasn’t quite dark enough. But even there, I suspect Tash Aw may well have structured Walter that way for a very particular reason. And that reason is the city of Shaghai itself because it is essentially the sixth character in the story, and it’s way more menacing and dangerous than Walter Chao could ever be!

Neon message 2

Occassionally the setting for a book is so appealing I find myself thinking I’d like to visit. The Shanghai of Five Star Billionaire hasn’t exactly been drafted with future promotional use by the Chinese Tourist Board in mind! Here is a city which glows and hypnotises the poor and the lost and the desperate from afar. It’s the classic mirage. Up close this is a city which seems to be almost soulless and proud of it! You get a strong sense of a cold-hearted city, its skyscrapers blocking out the sun, creating an artificial and manufactured society to match its concrete and glass takeover of the sky. For its desperate scramble to push its buildings ever upwards is matched by the scramble of its inhabitants to do the same. Each of the five characters in Five Star Billionaire are deeply flawed in some way be it avarice, morality, obsession, cruelty, or whatever. Shanghai reflects all those weaknesses in a gaudy, neon glow and casts them in the cheapest, harshest light.

In some ways I get the feeling Shanghai might be a love it or loathe it city in real life. I certainly think that for anybody reading the book, the extent to which you love or loathe Five Star Billionaire might depend on how you feel about Shanghai much more than how you react to Walter, Phoebe, Justin, Gary and Yinghui. Personally I loved it – for all its soullessness and for all its stone-hearted feel – which in fairness probably says as much about me as it does about Shanghai!!!!!

This is a book of strong characters and an even stronger setting. While it’s not a gentle love story by any means there is a surprising degree of gentleness throughout the book. As I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike any of the characters or the city for there’s something deeply moving, even in all the glitz, about what the human spirit will do to survive and prosper in the harshest of climates. As I read I felt a real personal connection to the characters. I frequently thought of my mum, who emigrated from Scotland to New York as a young woman in search of work and a better life, passing through Ellis Island and when I recall that I always think of the Emma Lazarus poem, written into the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.

So for that very personal connection, and for 14 million other reasons, I loved Five Star Billionaire!


Book Info

“Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw was published by 4th Estate for Harper Collins. My copy was one of those bought with my own hard-earned cash!

It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2013 but didn’t get beyond the longlisting – which surprises me somewhat but hey……what do I know!

If you are interested in reading a little more about Tash Aw, he has his own website, where you can read his synposis of Five Star Billionaire and a series of quotes in praise of the book from across the globe.

If you are more interested in what fellow readers might have thought of it (and there’s more varied opinion here) try reviews at 52 Books or Bust, at Booker Talk, and at Kevin from Canada.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)