Wednesday, September 06, 2017


Published by Maclehose
This is the first Cult Books post for a while. Have been working hard on review copies whereas most of the novels I read I pick up second-hand at random, always hoping for a marvellous surprise. I generally work through a large pile before hitting pay dirt. These four come highly recommended.

Let me start by saying that A Naked Singularity' by Sergio De La Pava is wonderful. It is also 864 pages and 270,000 words long. I was drawn to it immediately (it was £1) but unsure whether I could possibly digest such a monster work. The answer is not to rush. Hit a steady pace and look forward each day to reading a bit more.

Sergio was born in New Jersey, the son of Columbian parents and works as a legal defendant, largely for poor people caught up in the US criminal justice system. The novel takes us into that world (it ain't pretty), into the life of an extended Latino family, into a complex heist and many more lines of action, enquiry and intrigue. Some sections are almost entirely dialogue. Others are devoted to lengthy disquisitions on boxing.

Published by Canongate [210]

It's an entire world and though sometimes I got frustrated and felt why am I reading this, the book would immediately surpise me by shifting ground, scenery, action and zapping back into focus. It's got incredible energy and gusto and an encyclopaedic spread. Its also full of humour, unusually structured, highly passionate and full of great characters.

Finished in 1999, it took the author (with the help of his wife) ten years to get this unusual and unwieldy book published in the US and it came out in the UK in paperback in 2014.

There are two great Guardian pieces - an inciteful review by Stuart Kelly who felt the book needed a sterner edit but loved it anyway, and an incredibly interesting feature on the author's life and the story behind the book by Sunsanna Rustin. I recommend not reading them until you've swum in the ocean of this brilliant work.

A companion volume is another whopper, this time by the creators of 'The Wire'. Their focus in 'The Corner' is a year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood. It's an intensely researched and written work, novelistic in style but drawn from minute and detailed journalistic investigation. It's emotionally intense territory and the figures within it are so real that one feels their pain. The complex network of drug suppliers and users form a remarkable social and economic system that operates outside of normal rules and the law. Its hard reading but it takes you there and gives you an understanding of life in black America that adds further depth to the world of 'The Wire'.


Published by Sceptre [2011]
Best known for his book 'Cloud Atlas'  - made into a pretty great movie by the Wachowski's (once brothers, now sisters) -  David Mitchell's 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' is, by contrast, a historical novel set in the 18th century, which follows the adventures of a young Dutch clerk who has come to Japan to earn his fortune. 

At that time, Westerners were not allowed on the mainland so Jacob is stationed on the small artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki, where the Dutch traders do what business they can with the ancient and powerful Japanese authorities. 

There is of course intrigue, spies, adventures, love affairs and much more in its 560 pages. Mitchell has studied and worked to make his world as accurate and three-dimensional as possible and the vividness makes this book a satisfying read.

First published in the US in 1999, it took until 2012
before it reached the UK in this edition from Corsair.

This first novel by the now established Jennifer Egan was written in her early thirties. Set in 1978, it tells a story of Phoebe O'Connor's determination to find out the truth of her sister's death, a journey that leads her from the States through Europe to Italy. 

It's genuinely gripping, has a freshness of plot, three great characters and a sureness of tone that gives the reader confidence that they are in the hands of a writer of natural talent.

Egan has gone on to write three more novels - one of which, 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', won a Pulitzer prize in 2011 -  and a book of short stories. A fourth novel 'Manhattan Beach' came out earlier this year. More interesting reading to come.

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