Overloaded Bookshelf

I'm a former bookseller, English graduate and bookaholic.

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

This unusual novel is elegantly written and appropriately mysterious. I'm not much of a fan of fantasy writing and I've always found novels about 'real' magic problematic, but Morgenstern's world is understated and believable, with well-rounded characters who happen to be able to alter reality. The build-up to the climax is perhaps a little too long in coming, but the journey is an entertaining one, and certainly unlike anything else I've read in a very long time. This is one of those novels you just have to dive into and get lost in. Very impressive.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans - Matt Haig

This is the first book I have ever read solely on the basis of stumbling across the author on Twitter and rather liking the sound of him. Matt Haig (@matthaig1 if you fancy looking him up) comes across as someone who tries to add something positive to the world, or at least to look at it in a more positive way, which can of course only be a good thing. Haig became a writer following depression and a breakdown, finding comfort and meaning in creating stories. The story at the heart of The Humans apparently first came to him in the early months of this creative awakening, but it has taken the experience of several years and several other novels for Haig to develop the confidence to tackle it. The deep personal meaning of this novel is very apparent throughout, but his trademark humour and distinctive darker edges help to prevent it from sliding into sentimentality, leaving us with a remarkable novel which examines humanity from all angles and concludes that, actually, we’re not as bad as we think we are.

 

Looking at human beings from an alien perspective is not a new idea, but it gives Haig the narrative device which allows him to ask the big question at the heart of the novel – what does it mean to be human? The narrator is Professor Andrew Martin, an ambiguous character who is either: a) a professor of mathematics whose efforts to solve one of his subject’s longest-standing mysteries has driven him to a mental breakdown, or b) an alien who has taken on his form in order to destroy all evidence of his successful solving of the problem and thus restoring order to the universe. It doesn’t matter which of these happens to be true. They are, in fact, both equally true. Andrew Martin is no longer the man he once was, and no longer understands the subtleties and unspoken languages of human life. He has to learn how to re-connect with his wife and son, and with the rest of the world. In doing so he discovers that, flawed, brutal and ugly as humanity may be, it is preferable to an eternal life of purity and painlessness. It is only through our flaws, our troubles and our wounds that we find comfort, hope and love.

 

The Humans is an uplifting novel with a serious heart, a lot of humour and some sound advice. I recommend you try it.

Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Waiting for Sunrise - William Boyd

This novel has two very distinct parts, beginning with bohemian and sexy and ending with dangerous and thrilling. Neither of which were really what I was expecting, but the contrast worked well. This was my first Boyd and I will definitely be investigating his back catalogue.

Review: Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child

Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher, #11) - Lee Child

This has everything you have come to expect in a Jack Reacher novel - overblown plot, extreme and unlikely violence and bravura writing which somehow makes you overlook those first two things and enjoy it for what it is. In this one, a member of Reacher's old MP unit is in trouble, and the others have come back together to help. After all, you DO NOT MESS with the Special Investigators. Interestingly, when compared with his former subordinates, Reacher comes across as something of a sad, lonely character in this one, an aging drifter with no possessions and no emotional ties. He still has his penchant for killing bad guys, of course, in this case henchman for a potentially huge terrorist plot. It's this part of the Reacher novels which slightly annoys me. OK, the guys he maims and kills are all evil and trying to kill him, but he's racked up quite a body count after all these years, and it's never questioned. It makes me think of that bit in the first Austin Powers movie where they cut to the family of the henchman having the news of his death broken to them. What happens to the family of the guy who ends up buried in the foundations of the Las Vegas building plot in this one? Anyway, this is kind of beside the point. As Reacher novels go, this is a middling one, not bad but not the best. Patchy action, some vanilla sex and a plot which takes ages to unravel and is ultimately foiled in about two pages. But still enjoyable if you're a fan.

Review: In One Person by John Irving

In One Person - John Irving

A new John Irving is always a reason to celebrate. This one is hard to categorise, but follows the familiar Irving structure - the life of its main character from early youth to middle age, and encompassing writing, wrestling and love. In this case, the hero is a bisexual writer from a rural backwater, living through prejudice, love and the horrifying effects of AIDS on his friends and lovers. This is not a laugh riot, and there are some truly upsetting moments, but if you're an Irving fan you won't be disappointed. If not, I'm not sure this is the one to convert you, but it's still an important novel which tackles a subject not often tackled in 'mainstream' literary fiction.

SPOILER ALERT!

Review: The Drive by Tyler Keevil

The Drive - Tyler Keevil

I’ve never been much of a one for road trip novels. I started to read On The Road by Jack Kerouac once, and couldn’t bear the pretentious, self-obsessed tone, so it became one of few books I’ve never finished. I’ve never been tempted by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas either, although I’ve seen the film. So when this novel arrived I really wasn’t sure I was going to like it. The design of the cover and the section headers are deliberately Steadman-esque, and the blurb even name-checks Fear and Loathing. However, despite the similarities (road trip, surreal drug-addled adventures), this novel has a lot more substance than I was expecting, and is in fact an in-depth exploration of the self-indulgent folly of youth.

 

The Drive begins in Canada with the central character, Trevor, hiring a car and heading for the American border. His girlfriend has cheated on him, and the resulting resentment and impotence have led Trevor to sell his expensive movie camera and blow the money on a journey of self-discovery, a visit to a brothel and a blow-out in the Reno gaming houses. Trevor is young, stupid and not sure what he’s really looking for, so this plan is never destined to go well. Forced to swallow his stash of marijuana at the border to avoid being caught, the drive begins very much as it continues, under the influence of a lot of mind-altering chemicals, which isn’t helped by his self-imposed fasting and stopping to buy whiskey and cans of aerosol cream to inhale.

 

As his journey continues, Trevor’s adventures become stranger and more dangerous, including picking up a mysterious hitch-hiker, shooting birds with a bunch of hunters, getting on the wrong side of the leader of the local biker gang, and eating at a diner whose redneck owners may or may not be murdering the clientele and serving them up on the buffet. The line between reality and drug-enhanced fantasy is deliberately blurred, so it’s not possible to tell if these things are actually happening, or simply a manifestation of Trevor’s insecurities.

 

Trevor is a complicated character. Being in his early 20s makes him self-confident but also highly insecure. The drugs and guns seem to be a way of asserting his masculinity, and yet by the end of the novel he is flirting with the idea that his impotence may be caused by latent homosexuality rather than a broken heart. Below the surface, Trevor is a romantic and a sentimentalist, as evidenced by his adoption of a poorly, flea-ridden cat, rescued from the dodgy diner. He wears a plastic visor identical to one he had as a child, purchased from a town he once visited with his father – a symbol of an innocent and happier time. When he eventually arrives in San Francisco to stay with friends, Trevor’s journey has had a profound effect on him, and after some TLC for himself and his cat, and a final show down with his symbolic demons (the bikers), he is finally ready to start reaching some conclusions.

 

The Drive is an impressive novel. The writing is perfectly judged, allowing the story to reveal itself and its purpose gradually, much in the same way that Trevor experiences it. It has humour and heart, and is ultimately hopeful. I set out on this journey unsure that I would gain anything from it, but, like Trevor, my horizons have been well and truly expanded.  

One Big Damn Puzzler

One Big Damn Puzzler - John  Harding This was brilliant, really funny and absolutely heartbreaking. A highly original book.

DAMAGE.

Damage - Josephine Hart

This was recommended to me by a friend as "the best book [he's] ever read", and I'm afraid I couldn't disagree more! It's incredibly tedious. The characters are so dreary and self-obsessed I just wanted to give them a good slap. The fact that I kept visualising Jeremy Irons as the main character didn't help either.

Blindsighted

Blindsighted  - Karin Slaughter

I quite liked the characters and Karin Slaughter's writing style, but I felt the first murder was gratuitously extreme. It also didn't tie in at all with the motivation of the murderer, revealed later in the story, so was clearly designed for shock value alone. There was also some very questionable stuff about a woman being drugged into enjoying being raped. All in all, it left me feeling a bit dirty and exploited. Not really what I'm looking for in a book.

Emma Brown

Emma Brown - Charlotte Brontë, Clare Boylan

This slightly odd novel is an attempt to complete a story left behind unfinished by Charlotte Bronte. Unfortunately it didn't really work as a "proper" Bronte novel (I'm quite sure she wouldn't have wandered into the territory of enforced child prostitution!), and although it was a fairly entertaining read I couldn't help but be disappointed with overall result.

End of Mr Y

The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas

The author claims that she didn't want this to turn into a "shaggy God story" - but that's exactly what it is. I loved the characters, the philosophy and the science, but the ending was desperately disappointing. I'll be intrigued to see what Scarlett Thomas comes up with next though...

Resurrectionist

The Resurrectionist -

I kind of enjoyed this, but I'm not sure why - perhaps it's just my obsession with Victorian gothic. It's quite well-written, but relentlessly depressing. The ending was quite good I thought - at least it didn't turn into the "happy ever after" it was threatening to become. This was apparently one of Richard & Judy's book club reads - God knows what they made of it!

Strangers

Strangers - Taichi Yamada I really enjoyed this, although I found the overly-Americanized translation a bit irritating. The ending was a bit predictable but the build-up was excellent, very touching and beautifully understated. Recommended.

THE PHILOSOPHER'S APPRENTICE

THE PHILOSOPHER'S APPRENTICE - JAMES MORROW I loved "The Last Witchfinder", and I found this to be in much the same vein - serious, silly, funny, completely over-the-top and highly entertaining.

The Tent, the Bucket and Me: My Family's Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70s

The Tent, the Bucket and Me - Emma Kennedy

This was mildly entertaining, with a few laugh out loud moments, but I suspect wildly exaggerated. It seemed a little too pleased with itself to be truly enjoyable. I also noticed a lot of spelling mistakes and typos - think Ebury must be cutting back on editing and proof-reading staff. Disappointing on several levels.

Dark Clue

The Dark Clue - James Wilson A sequel (of sorts) to Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White, this novel has an intriguing premise which it never quite lives up to. Not a patch on its source material, with some unlikely sex scenes which I doubt Collins would have approved of, but nevertheless a reasonably entertaining read.

Currently reading

Avenue of Mysteries
John Irving