The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

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Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.

The Republic of Thieves – Scott Lynch (Book Review)

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Following on from reading The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, the Republic of Thieves is the third in the Gentleman Bastards series:

Locke and Jean barely escaped with their lives from what should have been the greatest heist of their career, in the port city of Tal Verrar. Now they head north, looking for sanctuary and an alchemist who can cure the poison that is slowly killing Locke. They find neither, but with their luck, money and hope exhausted, they receive an offer from a power that has never had their best interests at heart: The Bondsmagi of Karthain.

In exchange for the chance that Locke might be saved, the Bondsmagi expect the two Gentlemen Bastards to rig an election in their home city of Karthain. They will be opposed. The other side has already hired the services of Sabetha Belacoros, the one person in the world who might match Locke’s criminal skill, and the one person in the world who absolutely rules his heart.

Now it will be con artist against con artist in an election that couldn’t be more crooked, all for the benefit of the mysterious Bondsmagi, who have plans within plans and secrets they’re not telling…

The third book takes part in the city of Karthain, city of the Bondsmagi. Every 5 years, the Bondsmagi battle for power by backing one of the human political groups within the city, selecting an outside “adviser” to the group, and putting the city under a spell to be obedient to these advisers – a sort of game to watch too.

Locke and Jean are chosen to back one side, and their long-missing fellow Gentle(lady) Bastard, Sabetha, is chosen to back the other. As past relationships and new challenges arise incompatibly, the three must serve their masters who will accept no trickery in the elections – the one thing seemingly sacred to Bondsmagi.

We also learn more about the history of the land, past characters, and even some of Lockes origin.

Like the rest of the books in the series, this one continues with the amazing quality of writing, intriguing plot-lines, and unguessable twists caused by the genius of the main characters.

The ending of the book had me disappointed that the next has not yet been released for me to read immediately (here’s to hoping for a soon release!) With the return of old characters and clever explanations for Locke’s interest in Sabetha; the whole thing is left wide open for the fourth!

Overall the series has been a great introduction to fantasy writing for me, and will definitely lead me to read similar books in the genre. The large size of this volume seemed less intimidating due to the previous books in the series being so well written, and I found myself saddened when I neared the end.

Well worth a read if you haven’t done so already, and don’t be put off by the genre or length!

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (Book Review)

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I heard about the release of this book at the beginning of the year, and it was my most anticipated to date:

February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a strange purgatory – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – invisible to his father, bowed at the tomb. Within this transitional realm, where ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?

Having read some of Saunders’ short-stories, I was quite eager to see how he would approach writing a full length novel.

The whole story is set over one night in the graveyard in which Willie Lincoln was buried. He joins other spirits in the bardo, each reflecting on the lives they lived before they were left, forgotten in this place.

The characters all now live exaggerated realities of their desires in life, refusing to move on from that which characterised them before they were “sick”.  The book is written from the point of view of many of these characters in a very unique way, characteristic of Saunders. Many pages contain little more than 5 lines, and often these are quotes from sources around when Lincoln buried his son. The contrast between fiction and reality merging seamlessly in the writing.

The book has moments of stark honesty about the nature of life and the denial of death; the unity in suffering and the clinging to dissatisfaction. It was written in a unique way which garners interest in and of itself – I appreciate authors who are willing to take risks with what they write about and how they present it, and Saunders definetely pays off in this regard.

Worth a read if you get a chance, or have read his other stuff before. Otherwise it may seem a bit pricey for the time being until the paperback is released! With the line-spacing and the short chapters, this could easily be read very quickly, despite being around 350 pages long.

Equal Rites – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The third in the Discworld series, following on from the other two!

The last thing the wizard Drum Billet did, before Death laid a bony hand on his shoulder, was to pass on his staff of power to the eighth son of an eighth son. Unfortunately for his colleagues in the chauvinistic (not to say misogynistic) world of magic, he failed to check on the new-born baby’s sex…

Terry Pratchett turns his acute satirical eye on sexual equality and chauvanism in his hilarious third Discworld novel.

The story centers around Discworlds first female wizard – witches being something quite different and altogether more sensible.

The story essentially follows Esk throughout her life in the village under the guidance of a witch, picking up magic quickly and beyond even the witches capabilities. She then travels to the Unseen University to attempt entry as the first female wizard.

I think I enjoyed this book a little less than the other two, but it still had it’s funny moments and clever dialogue. Worth a read as an introduction to some characters I am told re-appear in the late books however; which I intend on reading!

I guess the obvious is that this book touches on feminism – that on Discworld, it is only tradition that says wizards have to be male, and that it is not “written anywhere”. I was expecting this to be a bit heavy-handed, but it was handled quite well and in a satirical way which perhaps merit mention.

“Mort” next!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (Book Review)

The first book for Book Club this year was The Bell Jar; a book I’ve been meaning to read for a little while now:

We follow Esther Greenwood’s personal life from her summer job in New York with Ladies’ Day magazine, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her final re-entry into the world like a used tyre: “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road” … Esther Greenwood’s account of her year in the bell jar is as clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.

I was first introduced to Sylvia Plath through her poem Lady Lazarus; the bleak acceptance of a reality she knew in it drew me to explore her writings further, and it only made sense to want to read the novel she wrote too.

The book is written much like her poetry – clever metaphors, well flowing language, and brute honesty. Plath is often too bleak for many to read and enjoy, but to take a step into her shoes and see the world as she does, we find ourselves being completely honest with ourselves, and falling to melancholy.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book because of this – that the author identifies so much that many would read publicly and laugh about, but individually sympathise with and weep.

This book is often described as “a young woman’s descent into madness”, but I can’t help but think that’s a little bit dated considering what it is: an account of a person with severe depression – a feeling that many can sympathise with today; recognising their own thoughts in that of the Narrators.

To those who have never experience such a thing, it may be a good read to catch a glimpse, and to those who have, a reminder of there being no solitude in the struggle.

Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch (Book Review)

After enjoying The Lies of Locke Lamora a lot, I immediately bought the second book in the Gentleman Bastards sequence:

Thief and con-man extraordinaire, Locke Lamora, and the ever lethal Jean Tannen have fled their home city and the wreckage of their lives. But they can’t run forever and when they stop they decide to head for the richest, and most difficult, target on the horizon. The city state of Tal Verarr. And the Sinspire.

The Sinspire is the ultimate gambling house. No-one has stolen so much as a single coin from it and lived. It’s the sort of challenge Locke simply can’t resist…

…but Locke’s perfect crime is going to have to wait.

Someone else in Tal Verarr wants the Gentleman Bastards’ expertise and is quite prepared to kill them to get it. Before long, Locke and Jean find themselves engaged in piracy. Fine work for thieves who don’t know one end of a galley from another.

This book begins 2 years after the events in The Lies of Locke Lamora – with Locke and Jean in a whole new setting, no longer able to live in Camorr safely.

The storyline, much like the first book, is very engaging, and with twists and turns along the way, keeps you guessing as to how Locke and Jean are going to get out of it. With the head of the gambling house, the political nobility, the leader of the navy, and the bonds-magi, Locke and Jean find themselves to be the most wanted men in Tal Verarr, for various purposes.

A lot of this book (as you might have guessed by the cover) takes place on the sea, aboard a ship called the Poison Orchid. Lock and Jean become embroiled in lives of piracy, and the setting of the wide ocean lends to this book a very unique and desired aspect – so few books seem to go for this setting.

With the humour and camaraderie of Jean and Locke, this book has a lot of genuinely funny and heartfelt lines, and the writing, as with the first book, is fantastic. I will be purchasing the third in the series shortly, and then will be up to date!

I enjoyed this book perhaps a little less than the first, but only a little: the first had such a unique debut into fantasy that everything was new and developing. The characters, though developed further in this book, are not to the same degree. The focus narrowing to just two of the Gentlemen Bastards, however, lends to a deeper look into their life and friendship.

Overall, a great second installment, and one I couldn’t put down.

Confessions – Kanae Minato (Book Review)

I saw the movie Confessions a little while back, and so was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of it recently in the form of a book recommendation:

Now it’s the last day of term, and Yuko’s last day at work. She tells her students she’s resigned because of what happened – but not for the reasons they think.

Her daughter didn’t die in an accident. Her daughter was killed by two pupils in the class. And before she leaves, she has a lesson to teach…

But revenge has a way of spinning out of control, and Yuko’s last lecture is only the start of the story.

Yuko is a teacher in a middle-school, and a single mother to 4 year old Manami. The opening book is her final lecture to her class before she resigns, in which she reveals, though whilst keeping the pupil’s identities secret, that she knows who murdered her daughter, and explains her revenge – in the form of infecting them with HIV

The rest of the book is written in different forms as we follow the consequences of the two pupils and their lives after the teacher has resigned.

The book is written in several parts, varying the point-of-view: one chapter a diary, the next a will, the next a phone-call, and so on.

The story is gripping, and I would encourage anyway to not be put off by the terible cover-art, and the cheesy tagline – the story is a lot more in-depth and lot darker than it would appear.

Reflections on the responsibilities of parents, society, and teachers towards children is often analysed throughout the book, with due consideration to how much responsibility a child should bear for the actions – especially one such as murder.

Some of the characters are even intentionally frustrating – such as one of the pupils over-protective mother who insists her child is just as much a victim as the murdered girl.

The end is fantastic too, circling off the whole story whilst frustrating the culprits.

Worth a read and very short – recommended for Japanese lit fans, or those in search of a good thriller.