Category: fiction

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St.John Mandel (Picador Books, 2014)

Not for the first, or last, time I find myself at odds with the consensus. Most reviewers on Good Reads see fit to give it a five star rating to this novel and it has garnered widespread critical praise.

The blurb on the back cover is headed by a quote from George R.R. Martin who says it is “a book I will long remember”.

For my part, it’s a book I will easily forget despite the promising premise of  a civilization all but wiped out by a deadly strain of Georgian flu. Continue reading

SUBURRA directed by Stefano Solima (Italy, 2015)

If, this year, you had been inclined to follow the age-old advice to do in Rome as the Romans do you might have attended a Mafia funeral, joined those protesting against travel disruption or become embroiled in one of the numerous corruption scandals.

2015 has been a veritable ‘annus horribilis’ for the Eternal City.

In this context, the movie Suburra looks less like a work of fiction and more like an depressingly realistic depiction of current events.

The title takes us back to ancient times, referring to the notorious red-light district of the city. The 21st century equivalent is an equally squalid world where prostitution, institutionalised crime, violence and general levels debauchery are routine. Continue reading


Vladimir Nabokov in writing mode.

“So now he is ready to write it [his novel]. He is fully equipped. His fountain pen is comfortably full, the house is quiet, the tobacco and the matches are together, the night is young… and we shall leave him in this pleasurable situation and gently steal out, and close the door, and firmly push out of the house, as we go, the monster of grim commonsense that is lumbering up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never never——And right then, just before it blurts out the word S E, double-L , false commonsense must be shot dead”

From “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” by Vladimir Nabokov (Read the complete essay here)


Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882-1961) is a cult writer who is feted The Netherlands but largely unknown elsewhere.
Nescio, his pen name, is the Latin for ‘I don’t know’ and anticipates this level of anonymity. It remains to be seen whether the first English translation of his stories by Damion Searls (published in 2012), will do much to widen his reputation.
Grönloh apparently chose this pseudonym so that it didn’t impinge on his business career. If this it true, it’s quite ironic because the thrust of his fiction is anti-establishment and advocates against settling for a 9-5 life of conformity.
The Freeloader, the first, and best, story of the collection is about a dedicated loafer and scrounger who sees no point in seeking gainful employment.
Nescio was not what you would call prolific so the 154 pages of this slim volume written in his youth essentially constitute the sum total of his life works.
In English, it’s hard to understand why the Dutch rate him so highly There is an idiosyncratic charm and a healthy advocacy of quiet rebellion but little that makes anywhere near the same impression as his contemporary Franz Kafka.
Two quotes from Young Titans serve to sum up the rather forlorn and fatalistic tone:
“Every year we longed for something without knowing what. It got monotonous…………And everything takes its little course, and woe to those who ask: Why?”

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts (Scribe Publications, 2003)

Stewart Brand described this novel as “the Les Misérables of the 21st century” and he’s not wrong. Both are sprawling and flawed epics which reflect the most essential aspects of humanity, warts and all.

I was gripped for over two-thirds of it which considering it is a 936 page brick, is quite an achievement.

Unfortunately, it tails off badly towards the end when many of the key characters are either dead or missing. The shift away from Mumbai as the centre of the action also diminishes the intensity. Nevertheless, I would still recommend it for a mostly riveting account of what may well be the ultimate exile experience.

Like the book’s central character, the author was a drug addict and a convicted felon who escaped from prison in Australia to India. He describes himself as “a revolutionary social activist who had lost his ideals in heroin and crime”.

The story documents the slow process of rediscovering these ideals and finding a fresh moral code to live by. This journey involves a recognition that “the burden of happiness can only be relieved by the balm of suffering”. Continue reading


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