Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

January 4, 2015

Dirk Gently UK front cover.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a funny book, both in the ha ha and peculiar sense. It introduces a lot of loosely connected plots about a computer programmer, an Electric Monk (which, for those that don’t know, is a kind of labour saving android that believes things on behalf of its owner), a dotty old Oxford Professor of Chronology, a millionaire philanthropist, his cellist sister, and a spoiled wannabe intellectual with a grudge. The titular character and antagonist doesn’t even enter the story proper until over a hundred pages in.

The first time I read this book about six years ago, I put it down half finished. Each plot seemed to amble along while the characters encountering complications ranging from mild to ridiculous, with only a vague promise that it would all tie together somehow to engage the reader.  During my recent reading, I found the same problem with the first half of the book, but I persisted. Read the rest of this entry »


To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway

January 25, 2014

To Have and Have Note (Hemmingway novel) 1st edition cover.jpg

Set in Cuba and Key West, against the background of prohibition, the Great Depression and the spread of communism, To Have and Have Not, as the title suggests, is about the difference between the rich and the poor. The first half of the novel focuses in Harry Morgan, a tough, often cruel rum runner who works the Gulf Stream. He’s in the classic Hemingway mold, but is neither as noble nor as colourful as some of the author’s more beloved protagonists.

After a rich passenger stiffs him for a season’s work, Harry is forced to take a job smuggling ‘ Chinamen’, typical of the dangerous assignments he feels he has to take on to feed his family. At this point, the theme is subsumed by the exotic setting of Cuba and the adventure of the smuggling trade. Read the rest of this entry »


After the Quake – Haruki Murakami

November 5, 2013

After the Quake: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami wrote After the Quake in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  In his characteristically unconventional memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he states that the short story collection was a turning point in his fiction, when his writing become less introspective and more outward-looking.  His new perspective is evident in the greater range and depth of his characters, the third person narratives, and the more mature themes which he explores.

It deals with the earthquake very indirectly.  Rather than exploiting the tragedy for drama, he explores it as a psychological phenomenon. In most of the stories, it is ancillary to the main story, but pivotal.

Still present are all the things I love about the writer – the championing of mundane courage, the conversational prose, the off-beat sensibility.  My personal favourites in the collection are the last two stories, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie.  In the latter, the main character, also an author, ends on a note that I suspect is autobiographical:

‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’

From now on, I’ll be reading Mr Murakami’s later works with this in mind.


Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

April 25, 2013

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Humbert Humbert – what a creep.  Sexual predator, public masturbator, effete pseudo-intellectual; it’s not an easy prospect to spend 300+ pages with a pretentious paedo as a narrator, but Nabokov pulls it off (pun intended) thanks to some beautiful writing and razor-sharp wit.

Lolita is the story of a European literary scholar who develops an all-consuming fixation with nymphets – his term for girls on the cusp of puberty.  In his twenties, Humbert alternates between sordid indulgence and tortured repression.  His determination to escape temptation leads him to take multiple coalescence in mental hospitals, to marry the most coquettish woman that he can find, and even to flee to the arctic.  Conversely, his attempts to seek at fulfilment are so wretched and farcical that I almost – almost – felt sorry for him.

Inevitably, though, he accepts his perversion, and begins to seek out opportunity.  He gains accommodation and even marries a woman with one intention in mind – to gain access to her precocious twelve year old daughter, the titular Lolita.  The consummation of this obsession is the subject of the first book; the second is devoted to his downfall.

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The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell

April 6, 2013

I enjoyed Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, for its realism and gimmick-free protagonist.  So, when I was having a tough week at work that put me in the mood for some absorbing crime fiction, I happily picked up The Dogs of Riga.  Unfortunately, everything that the first book got right, its follow-up gets wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


Dance Dance Dance – Haruki Murakami

January 22, 2013

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

Dance Dance Dance picks up where A Wild Sheep Chase left off.  The unnamed, everyman narrator is shell-shocked from the events of the previous novel and worried that he has no connection to the world except for his well-worn Subaru.  He makes a comfortable living on whatever freelance writing jobs come his way, or “shovelling cultural snow” as he puts it, and spends the rest of his time doing the things that Murakami protagonists do: drinking beer, walking the streets, making simple meals and listening to music.  He is, in a word, adrift.

But someone is crying out for him in the dark: his old girlfriend, Kiki, with the perfect ears, who disappeared at the end of the last novel.  To pick up the thread of his life, he knows he must find her.  His search takes him back to Sapporo, to the Dolphin Hotel, which sets in motion a chain of events that bring into his orbit a psychic fourteen-year-old Talking Heads fan, her world class photographer and space cadet mother, a depressive movie star who hates his dependable image, and the Sheep Man, who tells him one thing: “You gotta dance.”

Dance Dance Dance was published after Norwegian Wood, which earned Murakami such unwanted fame in Japan that he fled the country.  While it is a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, it is not considered part of the Trilogy of the Rat books that made up Murakami’s first three novels, and it does not carry over any of the political and historical commentary.  Instead, it is a much more inward looking, psychological book that sees the author dealing with the trappings of success. Read the rest of this entry »


Sarajevo Marlboro – Miljenko Jergovic

August 17, 2012

Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic

Twenty-nine stories from besieged Sarajevo.  Mr Ivo rips up his rose garden to dig a well that provides water to his whole neighborhood.  A family sits in their small candlelit apartment waiting for a young man to return.  A gravedigger uses a pack of cigarettes to try to explain why life under siege is like a festival.

The stories are very short, often as little as three of four pages, and written in simple, accessible language.  They are almost all from civilian perspectives, and though the war is often the catalyst for conflict, it is not always central.

Jergovic shows admirable restraint in his use of violence and horror, often a crutch for war writing.  Instead, he engages the reader by exploring universal themes on human nature, and making one of the greatest tragedies of recent history shockingly mundane and relatable.