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BOOKS - Fiction

Here are some novels I'd have been very proud to have written.

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

In some quarters Dickens is seen as too overly sentimental to warrant his esteemed position among English novelists, in much the way Chaplin and Spielberg are similarly judged in the world of film criticism. Well I'm not an expert, let alone a Dickens scholar, and I've not read his whole canon, but I studied this for 'O' level, loved it then, and every few years I revisit it, and it seems to me that sentimentality is far removed from this classic tale. Sure, there is plenty of love and devotion - most notably Joe's for Pip - and honour, honesty and pride, along with dishonesty, cheating and treachery. But it's far from a sentimental ride. It is in fact quite brutal from start to finish. The maltreatment of Pip by Miss Havisham and Estella throughout, and indeed by his much older sister and Magwitch when Pip is still a child are unforgettable, horrifying scenes. Of Magwitch himself, the vengeful malice inherent in the hounding to his demise and death is uncompromisingly harsh and haunting. And there's hardly a happy ending for anyone, except perhaps for the good Joe Gargery, though one senses he will not be fully content until Pip is settled. That seems a far off proposition with Magwitch dead, the cruel and frankly barmy Miss Havisham dead too, and Pip hanging on Estella's capricious will. Sentimental? Not on your nelly. Not this one. A rollicking read, rightly considered a classic.

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Bluebeard - Kurt Vonnegut

A modern American classic from my favourite author. It's a spoof autobiography and diary of an old and grizzled (fictional) artist, Rabo Karabekian, once prominent in the American school of Abstract Expressionist artists which included, in real life, most prominently Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. "Karabekian" charts his rise from humble beginnings, the son of poor Armenian refugees, to his high status in the art world, and his comical catastrophic demise as his greatest paintings fall apart due to the shortcomings of the paints he used to create them. Along the way he loses his virginity to a great schlock artist's muse and an eye serving in the second world war. Post war he marries and is a lousy husband, but a fabulous collector of important and very valuable pictures, despite his own painting career coming to an ignominious end. Losing his first wife and children - they leave him - he's rescued by his second wife from whom he inherits a fortune and a fabulous estate after her untimely death. The estate includes the huge potato barn where Karabekian keeps his final secret, which is the allusion to the Bluebeard tale.

            While writing the autobiography, Karabekian is harried by the indefatigable Circe Berman who turns up on his private beach one day and invites herself to stay with him indefinitely. She chivvies him along in his writing endeavours, makes herself at home, and is incensed when Karabekian refuses to let her see what is in the potato barn. The climax of the novel is, of course, when he relents and lets her in.

            Vonnegut seamlessly interweaves the lives of his fictional characters with real life historical figures in a convincing and entertaining tale. The book is chock full of his trademark dry wit and his blistering observations on the absurdities of the human condition. I've read this book a dozen times at least, and will probably read it a dozen times more.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera

One of the Czech master's more easily accessible works, notably turned into a Hollywood film with Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche in the lead roles, Tomas and Tereza. On the one hand it's a simple enough tale of escape from oppression - it's set around the turmoil of the Prague Spring - followed by an inability to settle in the "free" west, and a deliberate return to the stifling clutches of the totalitarian state from which they'd fled. But it's so much more, a grand existential contemplation on what it means to be free and where love and happiness can be found, assuming you know what love is, and you want to be happy. Shudderingly good.

Talking It Over - Julian Barnes

A tale of loves and friendships lost and found, betrayal, joy and grief, told chiefly in the voices of the protagonists, Stuart the jilted husband, Oliver his erstwhile best friend who successfully woos  and wins Gillian, wife to them both, the object of their desires. I admire the distinctive voices and the slow unfolding of the plot from the chummy closeness of Stuart and Oliver, the coming of Gillian into their lives through Stuart, and the drama of Oliver, realising he's fallen in love with Gillian, craftily pursuing her. Barnes creates 3 very different characters who react and interact in consistent and entirely believable ways. It's a cracking, classic yarn, set in a modern context raising several moral quandaries without attempting to resolve them. Is Oliver's decision to chase Gillian cruel and unacceptable? Is Stuart's grief morbid and self-indulgent? Are Gillian's deceptions avoidable? Don't ask Mr Barnes, you'll have to answer for yourself, or perhaps not.

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The Crow Road - Iain Banks

I must be one of the few people in the world unable to get through The Wasp Factory, Banks' sensationally successful debut novel. (For the record, I've tried at least 3 times and have still not got past about page 30.) In fact, there is much in his canon - Walking On Glass, The Bridge, A Song of Stone, for example - I have little time for. Yet again, there is also much I admire tremendously - Whit, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Stonemouth, are all highly entertaining reads with much to commend them. However, The Crow Road ranks high above all his other works, at least for me. The luxurious prose perfectly captures the coming of age of Prentice as he battles with his dysfunctional family, his sexual awakening and the girls he fancies, and the ongoing mystery of the disappearance of his Uncle Rory. It's a joy from first page to last, packed with hilarious scenes and sinister moments, a book you laugh and cry your way through. What more could you want? It's up there with Great Expectations and the best of Graham Greene, a literary masterpiece. If it was the only thing IB had written, he would still be worthy of a place in the pantheon of the greats.

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The Magus - John Fowles

A favourite of mine I find myself returning to again and again. A long, complex, baffling work, high octane entertainment and thrillingly mysterious, well worthy of several re-reads. It starts slowly with a pedestrian, almost tawdry love affair between the passionate Australian air stewardess, Alison, and the narrator, the self obsessed drifting teacher, Nicolas. Escaping both the tedium of London and the relationship with Alison, Nicolas takes a teaching post at a school on a Greek island. In time he meets Conchis, and Nicolas soon becomes embroiled in the master magician's intriguing and sinister games. You're as lost as Nicolas in the midst of the turmoil, and as perplexed as him by what it's all supposed to mean. There's an almighty twist at the end I didn't see coming on first read - I'm not entirely sure I saw it coming in subsequent readings - deftly kept under wraps by the author, unless, of course, I happen to be particularly dull witted.

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The Remains of The Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

Gut wrenchingly sad. I wept buckets. Stevens, the man servant, loyal and devoted to a questionably deserving employer, careless of his own happiness, emotionally stunted, constrained by duty. Miss Kenton, bright, vivacious, caring, unable to break through Stevens' hardened outer shell, unable to challenge the social conventions of the day. The stench of upper class pomposity, ignorance and ineptitude swirls in the pre-war haze around the central feature of the doomed non-love affair between the butler and the housekeeper. A man crippled by outmoded notions of duty. A young woman prevented by the conventions of the age from declaring her hand. Their post war meeting, when neither of their lives has gone quite the way they'd planned, is harrowing in its forlornness. An incredibly poignant story.

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What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt

An odd treasure. For a long time not a lot happens beyond the gradual intertwining of two families' lives, in particular the burgeoning friendship of two fathers, and the parallel developing relationship between their two sons. There's an awful lot of upper middle class posturing and angst as they live out their socially rarefied lives centred around the art world. Ms Hustvedt, however, is fiendishly clever. Every so often there's some odd incident - something goes missing, something odd is said - just tantalising enough to keep you wondering what is really going on and then, before you know it, you're reading a turn the page thriller. One father is dead, and the other has lost his son. It's revealed the surviving son is likely a sociopath, who is abusing the care and love of his father's surviving friend. The ending is shocking but intriguing and you're left asking a thousand questions, which is as good a way to leave your reader as any, especially if you're as accomplished as Ms Hustvedt.

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American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis

I found this hard to take, the explicit descriptions of the violence were very disturbing, but also, I accept, necessary. (For those of you who've seen the film, let me tell you, it's extremely tame compared with the novel.) The extraordinary listings of products and commodities in Bateman's narrative, his obsession with Huey Lewis and The News, and the endlessly vulgar displays of wealth and avarice are almost hypnotic. In a way, the torturing and butchering of his victims is part of the same dangerously detached paradigm. No one seems to notice he's a raving, murderous lunatic, and even when he confesses to a particular murder he's laughed at, because the victim was recently seen in Paris. So, is Bateman mad, or is it the rest of the world? If you've got the stomach, it's a compelling, exhilarating read. On one level it's an eloquent condemnation of the shallow fakery of our over consuming society, on another, a warning that manicured guys in smart suits may be absolute nutters: looks can be deceiving.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell

A constantly apposite mid-20th Century classic. A reminder that no matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are only ever a few crucial steps away from living in a totalitarian state, especially if the unscrupulous get their hands on the reins of power. The crucial lesson is that not only do we have to obey Big Brother, we must love him too. There are echoes of that kind of thinking going off all over the place most of the time, sometimes faintly, at other times rather more sonorously. Yes, it's Winston, O'Brien and the Rats, and Room 101 and all that, ringing rather too loudly in the third decade of the 21st Century. If only George had given us some idea of how to get rid of Big Brother.

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