Plundering my capsule reviews from my pre-blog days on my master spreadsheet – a selection from 2007 for you this time.
Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
A funny, gentle and very jolly satire on fake holy men and the followers they attract; almost an Indian Life of Brian!
Sampath’s family despair of him; he’s useless at his job in the post office and they can’t find him a wife. All Sampath wants to do is commune with nature and dream – so he runs away to a guava orchard outside the town and installs himself up one of the trees. Of course he’s found and they won’t leave him alone. So he starts spouting phrases from private letters he read at the post office, and everyone thinks he’s holy. His family take up residence and set up the tree as a shrine and Sampath’s ‘wisdom’ becames famous and people flock to see and hear him. Things get more hectic after a troupe of monkeys join him too.
A delight to read! (published in 1998)
Always the Sun by Neil Cross
This novel starts off with a standard scenario – father and son move house after the death of his wife to start again. Jamie, the son, has some ‘problems’ at his new school, and the whole thing bumbles along for about half the book. It eventually takes off when his Dad confronts the father of the lad he thinks is giving his son ‘problems’ … then it gets nasty and ultimately tragedy happens. We initially sympathise with the father who is bound up in his grief, but when that turns to rage, the tables are turned completely.
A powerful piece of writing that is compelling, especially to any parent! (published in 2004 and longlisted for the Booker Prize that year)
Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan
Does institutionalisation make you mad? Can anyone be really cured after years in a care facility? How many are working the system to stay rather than face the outside world? Are people getting enough of the right treatment? These are just some of the issues surrounding mental health that Allan addresses in her first novel having seen life from the inside herself apparently. Written from the viewpoint of one of the saner day patients ‘N’ who, at the start of the novel, has learnt to work the system, but still couldn’t survive totally outside it. When a new patient Poppy arrives, who doesn’t seem very mad, N is assigned to be her guide, and gradually everything changes. Billed as a North London One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, that’s doing this book a disservice; it’s very different. There are digs at the politicians too, especially over the provision of ‘Mad Money’ – an issue that tends to overtake the human plot at times.
An uneasy read – you wonder if there was much poetic licence taken; or is this a true reflection on life in such an institution? (published in 2006)
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Set in a top boy’s boarding school with a history of encouraging writing, this novel had me gripped from the start. Unashamedly literary in style – but being a book largely about literary style, criticism and subtexts, this is how it should be. The school arranges a series of visits from great authors and corresponding competitions for the boys to meet them. First Robert Frost, then Ayn Rand and finally the biggie – Papa Hemingway. What wouldn’t a fledgling writer do to meet his hero? That is a question for that boys, and staff. Fabulous writing, a gripping plot, but I couldn’t quite give it five stars as I haven’t read all the books they talk about – Ayn Rand’s in particular [Never gonna read her! – Ed] to compare and contrast with Hemingway.
Highly recommended though. (published 2003)
Life on Mars: Runaways, Exiles, Drag Queens and other Aliens in Florida by Alexander
Journalist Alex Stuart goes to Miami to write a feature for GQ mag, falls in love with the place and stays. He needed to get away from London after the death of his son from cancer, and found Miami was a place where misfits and runaways can all fit right in. He soon makes friends and has a great time and experiences little of the violent Miami we all expect from the movies; the real-life Chili Palmer, self-styled John Hood, is a gracious philosopher, the drag queen puts his creations away in the closet for daytime, and Hurricane Andrew misses Miami Beach. This contrasts with the poverty and tyranny in Cuba on his first visit there to write an article.It all seems very nice, and great fun.
Did he manage to get under the skin of the real Miami? Partially, I think – and it was mostly good to read about.