Birnam Wood – book review

Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton

Well, I didn’t see that one coming. What an ending! Bloody hell, Eleanor Catton first lulls us with a nice gardening collective and then goes full-on James Bond.

So much has been written about Birnam Wood already and all of it is full of praise: dark and brilliant (the Guardian), an astounding analysis of human psychology (the Spinoff), an explosive climate-change thriller (FT), phenomenal and utterly gripping, electric, spectacular, a complex and absorbing web of human relationships (Various). And yes to all that.

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Shuggie Bain — Book Review

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart

The poor wean. There’s love, but it’s inconsistent and unreliable, a selfish love given up in tiny doses. There’s food, occasionally, perhaps a tin of custard. I’m thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and realise Shuggie doesn’t even get off the ground floor. He can’t tick off a thing.

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Girl, Woman, Other – book review

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This is not so much a novel as a commitment. There are a lot of lives here and they all ask you to take the time to read, to listen, to understand. Don’t skimp on this book. Don’t try to squeeze it in with quick gulps when your mind is elsewhere.

I found the level of intimacy from strangers a bit overwhelming to begin with. These are straight talking and honest women sharing their experiences from a cross-section of black Britain. They take you right into the living room and sit you down. There are twelve main characters who tell their stories in separate chapters, up and down the generations and all loosely linked. The bunch is tied together at the end in a party.

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The Sea – book review

The Sea, by John Banville

I’m a bit ambivalent about John Banville’s The Sea. I wish he’d put a plot in.

Instead, there are pages full of wistfully charming descriptions and heavily clever observations in search of something to do with themselves.

I got pretty impatient with it. There are characters, but other than the grieving narrator it’s hard to get a handle on them. It turns out it’s not really the dead wife who drives the narrative but a pair of twins our man met on a youthful holiday, or perhaps another child who I eventually figured out wasn’t a child but the nanny who turns into a later character to tie it all together, who wasn’t in love with the father but the mother and was there when the twins walked into the sea, not quite sure why – but I’ve lost you.

It’s easily done.  Even if you went back to figure it all out I’m not sure it would get any more interesting.

The thing that is interesting, that I discovered only after I’d finished it and gone – meh – is that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It was a controversial choice, up against Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Juilan Barnes.  Banville himself implied it was a victory for high art over slick popularism. He comes across, like his character, as a bit of a prat.

But this acknowledgement of literary merit perhaps is the reason for my ambivalence and its inclusion in my list of “good reads for book clubs”. I do like a well hung sentence and I did find myself starting to enjoy snippets very much before the story wandered off somewhere else. So I guess I understand why the Booker judges found the novel classy; though classier than Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go?  Get your book club to read both and ask yourselves what those judges were drinking!

Then again, if you’re an educated, white, middle class bloke and you have a quiet afternoon in front of you with no expectations of wild adventure or a ripping yarn and are in the mood to finding poignancy in very good prose, this thoughtful, old-fashioned read will suit you well.




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