Brit Bennett|| The Mothers

To be honest, The Mothers is one of those novels you find it hard to criticise because they are just all-right, nice reads, nothing special. Though Bennett had the idea to elevate The Mothers over the average she does not really succeed in executing it.

In The Mothers we are introduced to three adolescents: all with their own problems. A mother has committed suicide leaving father and daughter incapable of helping each other; a mother choses the stepfather who sexually abuses her daughter; a young aspiring football player gets injured and has to re-plan his life whilst his father’s congregation is watching.

Nadia, Aubrey and Luke become friends and lovers, though not at the same time. They help each other through difficult times, they create new difficulties. Some of those difficulties will stand between them when they have long grown up.

The problem I have with our three adolescents is that they are too bland, too cliché. They are what they are meant to represent, they have insufficient depth of character to convince. They remain flat characters, just as all the people surrounding them. Bennett fails to add that extra layer to her adolescents that could have elevated the entire novel.

In this same way she uses a smart rhetorical device which does not come to its full potential: the chorus of old. In The Mothers the mothers actually are a group of elderly churchgoing women who comment on the lives of our three protagonists. They judge, they tease the readers with things to come, sometimes they look back on their own lives – with regret, with sadness. Bennett does not take her mothers far enough however. They act their part, they could have been hilarious, vicious, tender, or judgemental.

Though The Mothers is a nice read, one of those novels you enjoy whilst reading, the effect does not last. The novel lacks the level of depth that could have made it special, could have made it stand out. Bennett did not fully use her subject matter, a pity.


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Philip Roth || The Plot Against America

I was advised to read Roth by some co-workers who felt that The Plot might inspire us to a vivid discussion on leadership. Having not read a Roth for a long time I thought, what the heck, let’s give it a try. To be surprised by the way I was transported to a young boy’s youth in 40’s America. And to be rather bored by the pseudo-historical facts about what could have been World War II.

To start off with the last. Those who read my blog on a regular base know novels with lots of historical facts are not for me. I do not enjoy those facts, they usually bore me to death. Even if they are would-be historical facts. Not Roosevelt has been elected president but famous pilot Charles Lindbergh, despite the fact that he is a fan of HItler and his fascist regime. The United States do not enter World War II, they stand by whilst Europe and Asia are being overrun by the Germans and Japanese. Fascism and hatred of Jews slowly but certainly takes over. It takes a rather dubious trick to have Roosevelt return and the States being saved from growing anti-Semitism and fascism.

There was one moment history spoke to me in the novel: when mayor Guiliano leads a protest after the death of a Jewish columnist leading to the first pogroms in America. His speech is a prime example of how a leader in a democratic society should condemn violence and fascism. This speech results in Lindbergh disappearing a few days later, it is rumoured that he has been a German spy all along.

Philip Roth shares the plot against America with us through the eyes of his younger self. We learn about the consequences of Lindbergh’s election for his family, for his neighbourhood, for his country. Young Roth does not grasp everything that is happening around him, he does grasp that the grown-ups fear Lindbergh and his policies, that they each react in their own way to the changes in society. One by stubbornly refusing to leave his post, the other by fleeing to Canada, yet another by joining the Allies. A young Roth observes them chosing their own path, learning that it is difficult to judge which choice was best.

I loved the novel when we were taking along by the 9-year old and were allowed to see his world through his eyes. Beautiful sentences, vivid imagery all help to convey Roth’s world to us successfully. You could almost hear and smell his world. Did I like The Plot? Yes and no. I have again proven not to be a fan of (historical) fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters on family, neighbourhood and boyhood.


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Nicole Barker || H(a)ppy

One might summarise H(a)ppy in one sentence: Mira 1 is encountering more and more problems in trying to fit in with the rules and regulations of her society, she finally succumbs to the innate desire to be herself. This short summary does not do the novel justice. In this dystopic novel content and form work together brilliantly.

Somewhere in the future humanity choses to regulate thoughts and emotions. War and disasters caused by humans have led to this drastic decision. Young people are being brainwashed voluntarily and live totally organised and regulated lives. Some descriptions hint at the use of drugs and digital appliances. Then Mira starts to experience malfunctions, simple ones at first. The computer screen showing her thoughts and emotions to all the world can no longer spell happy correctly, the screen starts to show h(a)ppy.

This spelling error leads to a process of trying to correct Mira by adjusting her doses and giving her heavy, stronger implants, issuing commando on who to talk to, to take a robotic dog. Unfortunately nothing works, it only gets worse. Barker shows this process in two ways: Mira starts to talk more and more like a robot having a malfunction, like a computer being adrift. The design and typography of the novel visually support language and content. The person being allowed to design this novel must have had a field day.

At first just h(a)ppy is spelt wrong, next emotional words are shown in colour, the typography gets more and more extreme and exuberant in this way. The process to make Mira human again is accompanied in a perfect way visually. Some pages are blanks with one single (sometimes small, sometimes really big ) word, some pages are a jumble of repeated words or phrases, complete blanks.

Of course there must have been the risk of design and typography becoming more important than what is actually being told. Barker however succeeds perfectly in having the three co-operate and support each other. From robotlike sentences to hallucinating texts to newspaper quotes to enumerations to emotional outburst. Everything collaborates in producing a satisfying novel.

I do not know whether H(a)ppy will be for everyone, the novel might be too experimental to please the crowds. Apart from the brilliant design the novel expertly conveys the concept of a totalitarian state based on idealism becoming its own victim. The scenes in which Mira discovers a different way of living are practically hallucinations, and therefore texts that estrange. Intriguing though not easy to read or grasp. I for one am not sure I totally grasped what Barker tried to convey.

Barker has written a great novel. She combined language – content – form in such a way that I was spellbound from start to finish. I suspect Barker gambled on her readers having watchers enough science fiction in order to require only small hints as to robotised humans. The reader can decide upon the mental picture of an entity, Borg? Cybermen? Daleks?, Mira is fighting to liberate herself from. I absolutely loved H(a)ppy.

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Bernard MacLaverty || Midwinter Break

In MacLaverty’s novel a short city break to Amsterdam is the basis for thoughts on religion, the Northern Iris Troubles and marriage. Main characters Stella and Gerry, both Irish though living in Glasgow, come to a decisive moment in their lives and marriage in the Dutch capital.

At the start of the novel it seems inconspicuous: Gerry and Stella travel a lot, they visit lots of places together. Stella however, turns out to know exactly why Amsterdam is chosen for this city trip. She is looking for a more relevant, a more devout way of life and hopes to find this amongst the Beguines in Amsterdam. To Gerry Amsterdam is ideal for looking at architecture and finding shops to refill his flask of whisky.

At first Stella appears to be the less likeable: she is thrifty, cares about structure in her life and is very Roman Catholic. Then the reader realises Gerry is an alcoholic which definitely makes Stella’s life hard. When the trip starts to unleash memories in both Gerry and Stella, MacLaverty has the reader become milder and milder towards them. An accident in the past has had severe repercussions on both Gerry and Stella.

Midwinter Break balances between present, past and future all the time. Sometimes it is as if MacLaverty drags a topic into his novel, only to find out is has played a decisive part in the couple’s life. What could have been a mere personal aversion of the writer against church and IRA turns out to have a base in their lives. The novel in this way builds up to a touching (though never sentimental) apotheosis.

The location of course does make it even nicer for someone living close to Amsterdam. When MacLaverty describes how Stella passes from the gate on the busy Spui to the tranquil world of the Beguines I can see it quite literally in my head (thanks to having been to several concerts in the beautiful Church of Scotland). I did wonder though when MacLaverty visited Amsterdam for the last time, I cannot recall the last time I paid for my bus fare with a ‘strippenkaart’.

Midwinter is an expertly written novel, something one may depend on in MacLaverty. He draws us into the lives of his main characters by mixing daily reality and memories. Add to this his choice of words, his way of structuring sentences and his beautiful choice of imagery and one is rewarded with a beautiful novel (with a little extra because of Amsterdam).



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Polly Clark || Larchfield


Larchfield is supposed to be about the search of a young poet, Dora, for the life WH Auden lived in the village they have both come to dwell in. In reality Larchfield is about the serious postnatal depression she suffers, caused partly because of her bitchy neighbour. WH Auden is like a side-kick in the story, a major one though.

Clark did not choose an original structure for her novel: chapter on Dora, chapter on Wystan Auden. Audens chapters centre on the mediocre boarding school he has come to work for, on the increasing trouble he has keeping his true sexuality hidden. In the other chapters Clark introduces us to Dora and Kit, recently married, owners of the ground floor of a beautiful Georgian villa. Unfortunately they only discover after having moved into their home that their neighbours consider right of over path to be ‘this property should be ours, you are not welcome here’. After the premature birth of daughter Beatrice the neighbour’s terror and loneliness lead to a whopping postnatal depression. The reader is for some majorly interesting chapters.

Dora has psychotic episodes in which she believes that she can walk into Auden’s school, talk to him and develop a friendship. These chapters save the novel and transform it into something more than ‘ well, just nice’. In the other chapters Clark tries too hard: her language is too constructed, her structure too restricting, there is too much coincidence in things happening, her references to the threat of Nazi Germany are superfluous. In Dora’s dreamworld the meetings with Wystan Auden seem to flow so naturally one might almost believe they are the reality. Clarks language takes on a poetic, idyllic quality that transforms it.

Larchfield is certainly not a bad novel. In the majority of chapters however Clark fails to really convince. One senses Clark’s effort in still doing her best to write ever so well. The Dora-Auden chapters have convinced me that Clark can be a brilliant writer. A matter of letting go, of trusting her own talent. If she manages that we are in for some good novels.


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Colm Toibin || House of Names

Spoiler Alert

As far as I am concerned Tóibín could have stopped writing after the first part of his novel. The sorrow and despair of queen Clytemnestra is vibrant, it touches you, it makes you feel for her. The other parts do not maintain this level of intensity.

I did not know the story but Tóibín re-tells the myth of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. In short: Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in the hope that the Gods will reward him with victory; Clytemnestra is torn apart by grief and despair and kills her husband when he returns home; daughter Electra does not understand why her mother acts this way en has her brother Orestes, upon returning after years of imprisonment, kill his mother.

Tóibín starts House of Names when Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. His wife’s despair does not count. The next 100 pages are filled with raw grief and despair, Clytemnestra being blinded completely by the thought of revenge. She sacrifices everything, including the well-being of her fragile daughter Electra, to having her husband killed. After this first part filled with tangible emotions Tóibín switches to Orestes and at that point his novel lands into difficulties. Though the story is still interesting – Orestes and his friend / lover escaping their kidnappers, living in hiding for years, on return discovering that their world has changed completely – Orestes himself is just not strong enough, not decisive enough to have him carry the story. He has no mind of his own, he simply follows Leander and Electra. He is a not too bright spectator in his own world.

Despite Orestes’ lack of characterHouse of Names remains interesting for two reasons: Tóibín’s incredible skill in writing and him showing us a world in which the lack of communication leads to misunderstandings, misconceptions, tricking people and eventually murder. Not understanding one another is the core of the novel and leads to violence from start to finish. There were moments I wished I could have told Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes to start listening for once, to start wondering why their family react as they react.

I am in doubt whether I appreciate the end of the novel. House of Names ends with Leander and Orestes waiting for Leander’s nephew to be born. For the first time in many months their intimate friendship re-surfaces. As a result the novel, though ending in hope, kind of trickles away softly. One might focus on the novel not ending as enigmatically as it started, one might also focus on the powerful message of hope. In this novel about raw emotions and lack of communications that might be the better option.



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Jennifer Egan || Manhattan Beach


Egan’s first novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, surprised. She chose an unusual structure that lead to a sublime novel. Up to her to deliver a convincing second. My expectations were high and were being raised even more by the praise Manhattan Beach was given all around me. Deception can be close in that case.

In Manhattan Beach Egan takes us along to New York, before and during the Second World War. Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles show us that in this New York there is a thin line between the upstanding and the criminal world. The latter is omnipresent, the legal world profits. As long as everyone keeps his mouth shut and accepts his part everything goes well. No way you can just step out of the criminal world and start a new life.

Egan also introduces Kerrigan’s family, which he has deserted. He has left the care for his brain-damaged daughter to his wife and their oldest daughter. The war helps them: Anna works on the naval base and even manages to get herself a position as a diver. She succeeds in an all-male world, she turns out to be a talented diver.

Once Kerrigan took Anna along when he had a meeting with Styles. She recognizes the man when visiting one of his nightclubs and introduces herself to him. A short passionate affair starts. It ends when Styles finds out who her father is. It appears he is guilty of his death. The reader knows better , Egan having re-introduced him working as a sailor.

Egan has written a novel that changes times and perspectives often, with good effect. Kerrigan and Styles furthermore grant her the possibility to look at two totally different environments in one and the same city. That of the wealthy in-crowd into which Styles has married and that of the hard-working common New Yorker. Both environments being highly invaded by the criminal one. Kerrigan’s job for the Union is slightly different from what his wife suspects.

Egan has also written a novel that shows three people struggling to ecscape the restrictions of their environment. A struggle which has its consequences.

My problem with Manhattan Beach is that Egan wants too much. In order to combine everything the factor ‘ coincidence’ becomes too big. It made Manhattan Beach feel too constructed, too far-fetched. Whereas Goon Squad convinced through its loose structure, Manhattan Beach stumbles on the effort to combine everything too well.

Manhattan Beach is definitely worth a read, if only for the way Egan makes us see that the criminal world is tied inseparably to the upstanding, legal one. And how difficult it is to escape. Manhattan Beach could have been a very good novel if Egan had tried less hard.


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Ali Smith || Winter

An exceptional novel, this sequel to Autumn. Exceptional because of the fact that Smith expertly juggles language, structure, characters and realism. Exceptional as well for Smith taking a firm, almost political, stance.

To start with the first. The short chapters on the protests against nuclear arms in Great Britain leave no room for doubt: Smith is with the women who many years ago chained themselves to the gates and who changed public opinion on nuclear energy and arms. Iris, one of the main characters, is one of them. She has been a protester from the start, she has moved on to aid present day refugees who arrive in Greece and Italy. Add to this the remarks Lux, Croatian born, makes about not knowing whether she’ll have a future in the United Kingdom after Brexit and one may conclude that Smith is taking a strong standpoint.

Smith treats us to a story filled to the rim with sudden, unexpected changes of perspective, going from extremely realistic to poetic or magical, from demonstrating against the bomb to bodiless heads floating around and changing into stones. She uses structure, language and perspective to create a powerful story built around four main characters who demonstrate the effects choices in life can have.

It would be too simple to state that main characters Sophia and Art(hur) have a sober level-headed, rather cold and materialistic view on life. Subtle remarks casually interwoven into the text show that their upbringing has been important in their (subconscious) choice not to give in to emotions and feelings. Older sister and aunt Iris is the complete opposite: her life has been ruled by impulse and her strong sense of injustice, her care for humanity. Their relationship, their interactions demonstrate that a human life is far too complex to draw simple conclusions on bare facts.

Lux is the impartial one, the one who effortlessly moves between Iris, Sophia and Arthur. She is also the one who makes Art realize that a more relaxed and at the same time more conscious style of life is preferable. Since she has no idea whether she can stay in the UNited Kingdom after Brexit she literally moves around. She has no home, no permanent job, no future. She appears to exist merely for waking up Iris, Sophia and Art, for making them conscious of what life has to offer them.

Winter is not an easy novel in the sense that as a reader you immediately get what Smith wants to tell you. I strongly feel that I should read the novel a second time in order to discover something that might still be hidden, this blog comes too early in that sense. I enjoyed the beautiful language, the beautiful and effective jumping from fact to magic realism, the subtle way in which four rather flat characters grow into lifelike personalities. I am looking forward to Spring and Summer, I wonder what they will bring.


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Margaret Drabble || The Dark Flood Rises

The majority of characters in The Dark Flood Rises has retired, sometimes still full of life, sometimes old and sickly. The one person who is not as yet 65 has tragically lost his partner. The result: a novel that kind of drifts along the dark flood.

In The Dark Flood Rises Drabble paints the lives of several people who are in the final part of their life. Fran is the main character who connects everyone. Despite her age (in her sixties) she is still an advisor in the field of housing for the elderly, she takes care of her ex and she has an active social life. She contacts her children daily,  texting them short messages. Through Fran we get to know a number of elderly people and their different coping mechanismes.

At least, those coping mechanismes that are available to you if you have the funds. The house on Lanzarote, the appartement with care and provisions, the private nurse, it is not for everyone. The other, less comfortabele, side of growing old is shown when Fran visits a plain, normal home for the elderly.

Since the majority of Frans friends has had an university education and ensuing job, they do not do small talk. Conversations between friends and inside heads are filled with references to (sometimes quite unknown) writers, printers, artists. It made me wonder whether Drabble had her characters reminiscing or embroidering on schooled topics in order to pinpoint that they are struggling to maintain a goal in life, that they are desperately trying to cope with boredom. Ivor, one of the friends of a friend who can only claim good looks and servitude is a refreshing exception.

Drabble paints a realistic image of the lives of a certain part of the elderly. Her characters are fairly life-like. It does not make for a novel that stands out however. She does not dig deep enough into her characters, even Fran remains on the shallow side, Drabble sticks to superficial descriptions. Though as a result the superficiality and boredom of her main characters lives is shown, it did not make for a fascinating insight into their lives. A Dark Flood Rises just plods on and had me slightly bored.

dark flood

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Bill Beverly || Dodgers

Dodgers is praised for being a brilliant criminal novel. With due respect to the genre, Dodgers is more. East might be a very young paid killer to be, the novel deals with his emotional growth. That he has been given orders to go and kill someone is a mere detail.

East is a typical example of a kid growing up in an environment, a poor and rather criminal area somewhere in Los Angeles, that offers him only one way out: up in the criminal world. His addicted mother does not care that her son is being groomed by a drug lord, that is merely part of their life. School hardly matters, knowing the right person does.

East is told to shoot a judge who lives at a few days ride to the east. The journey east serves two purposes: East gets to see a different America, he also gets to know himself. His companions (as young as East) are to help him kill the judge, the reader can also compare them to East: the smart college kid with a gambling addiction who will risk all just for a chance to gamble in Vegas, the trigger happy sociopath and the smart kid who has learnt to use his mind in order to survive life in the drug gangs.

East turns out to be a steadfast and loyal person, he is the one to be trusted, the one who will complete the task whichever way. Whether he acknowledges and appreciates his own qualities is doubtful. Other people do see him for what he is and rate him high for it. Slowly but surely the journey and everything that happens makes East look differently at himself and at his future. The assignment which places him out of his comfort zone turns out to be his chance to decide on his future.

Beverly introduces his readers to a young boy growing up in a harsh world. He has to watch his mother go under, he tries to survive by doing what he knows best. I was moved by his search for a different future, and by the fact that somewhere in this harsh world some people do want to make things right for him. Beverly has written a beautiful novel which happens to have drug related crime as its setting, Dodgers however is about the search for oneself. I loved it.



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