Tag Archives: Random House Publishing

UFO in Her Eyes – Xiaolu Guo

I have been a big fan of Xiaolu Guo ever since I first read ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers’ back in the early days of book blogging. I fell in love with the heroine and her thoughts on the UK from a Chinese girl who has never travelled. This was then repeated when I read ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’, actually Guo’s first book rewritten, and I fell in love with the heroine as she takes us through Beijing and the world of the movie and film industry. This latest book had passed me buy until I saw it in the library.

UFO in Her Eyes is another look at life in the countryside of China and though set in the not to distant future of 2012 it seems to look at Guo thoughts on the way China is changing and what happens to the small villages where over 700 million peasants live and work. This isn’t a dull or lecturing book, but mainly it’s told with a rye knowing smile. It’s not a light book though and has a statement and looks at the situation and is in part saddening and thought provoking too.

Kwok Yun is a peasant living on the edges of Silver Hill Village when one day she witnesses a flying disc in the sky “a UFThing” she then finds a foreignerin the rice fields and shadows of the craft with blue eyes and yellow hair in a field who she looks after. Once these things are discovered by the villagers and then Chinese intelligence from Beijing armed with questions who interrogate the town. Kwok slowly becomes an instant celebrity and the town becomes famous. Soon what was once a small peasant village becomes a tourist attraction gaining chains of shops, a leisure centre (on top of a peasants fields without asking) and a huge statue in honour of the UFO and all of the villagers lives are changed though not for the better as you might think. 

Once again Guo has created a wonderful female lead in Kwok, even if everyone really thinks she is a man. Though we don’t see too much of Kwok all in all as we meet a host of villagers who share the limelight. Guo has written some brilliant bad tempered and comical villagers such as the noodle man who only cooks you what he wants you to eat, the Butcher who starts to relive his days as a Parasite Eradication Hero and the leader of the town Chief Chang who wants to ‘demolish the weak demolish the rotten’.

Like with her books before it’s the bluntness and honesty that comes through Guo’s writing that I love, she doesn’t hold back is witty and says things like she sees them. I also love how with Guo’s work she uses different mediums for fiction. In ‘A Concise Chinese English Dictionary’ it was diary entries and letters. In ’20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth’ pictures are interspersed along with occasional pieces of script dialogue. In this case, as I briefly mentioned before, we have files, emails, interviews, meeting notes from village gatherings and plans of the future city. Yet still without giving you just straightforward prose every crazy villager comes to life as do some of their motives and how dictators are born.

 I thought this book was marvellous and Guo is certainly becoming one of my favourite authors. I am now very excited about ‘Lovers in the Age of Indifference’ which is out in January and am expecting to be another gem. I haven noticed I haven’t read any Chinese or Japanese literature for a while and am wondering where and who to head to next. Where indeed?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Chatto & Windus, Random House Publishing, Review, Xiaolu Guo

The Paper House – Carlos Maria Dominguez

There will be a bigger post on ‘books about books’ and also on how this book and a surprising little bonus came into my hands tomorrow… but for now I will, if you will indulge me, give you my thoughts on a book that both reading HEiotL and a post that the lovely Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book lead me to which is a fictional book all about books called The Paper House and is one that starts with someone being killed by a secondhand book, can you imagine such a thing?

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickenson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

It is with this very death that the novel, though I would say it was a novella though I do get them confused I will admit, starts. Though it is in fact the events after the death of Bluma Lennon that the book is in fact about, for not long after her death a parcel is delivered for her containing a cement covered copy of The Shadow Line by Conrad. The person who picks this up on her behalf is her Cambridge colleague. It is also he who then goes on a mission, to Uruguay, to find the person who sent the book a Mr Carlos Brauer, a man who in local book circles is renowned as one of the great bibliophiles. It was when the book collecting is discussed that I found myself thinking ‘oh I so agree’ which happened a lot.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to aquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us… Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to loose a ring. a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. The truth is that in the end, the size of a library does matter.

Not only is this a quirky unusual mystery it is a book about books and one that any book lover will happily devour in a sitting or two as I did. It looks at how different people collect books and what makes collection books such a joy to each individual as well as the pleasure gained from reading. However it does in some cases give a forewarning of the costs a serious book addiction and not money something much darker indeed. Though there is no real depth to any character, apart from Carlos into whos obsession we very deeply go, it is beautifully written and you go on an unusual bookish and mysterious journey with the narrator.

I thought this was a very clever book which managed to pack in a huge amount in just over 100 pages. It seems to genuinely get into the mind of a true book lover which I can only assume is a quality that the author has within himself. I thought that the start of the book was quite a darkly comic way to start the book as the narrator tells of his grandmothers thoughts on books and reading “stop that, books are dangerous”. Also with the dark sting in the tail of the tale it covers all peoples attitudes to books from the unimpressed to the obsessed and that makes for a very intriguing and unusual read one that I am very glad to now have on my shelves. It has also left me with a list of more books that I really want to read, and what more could you want from a book about books even if its fictional?

To build up a library is to create a life.

I am amazed that this book hasn’t been more heard of, though as the book itself goes on to illustrate (ooh which reminds me there are lovely slightly fable like illustrations in the book the whole way through) with the world be so full of books how can we know all of them let alone read them all? I think anyone who likes books should while away an hour or two with this, it certainly did the trick of cheering me up after a fairly rubbish Thursday. Oh for the weekend, back to Sensation reading and catching up on rest and all your blogs. Do you like the idea of The Paper House? What could be the pitfalls of having too many books or can there not be one?

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Filed under Books About Books, Carlos Maria Dominguez, Harvill Secker Books, Random House Publishing, Review

Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres

Some books people tell you that you simply must read and yet you simply don’t. One book that my Gran has always enthused about and even my mother has always said I must read (both are book obsessed, the later less so at the moment) is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I don’t know if it’s the fact so many people have said that it is wonderful that has made me hold off (overhype can be a terrible thing) or the fact that Nicholas Cage is in the film, which I haven’t seen, and therefore I sadly associate the book with an actor I cant stand, either way I have held off from the book and the author. However when the lovely people at Harvill Secker sent me the new Louis De Bernieres book which is about a village filled with unusual crazy characters I couldn’t hold myself back from reading it almost instantly.

Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn’t a memoir it’s a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.

It was a day in middle March, of the kind that for early risers begins sunny and uplifting, but which for late risers has already degenerated into the nondescript gloom that causes England to be deprecated by foreigners. The rooks were breaking off the ends of willow twigs and building their nests with raucous incompetence, most of the twigs ended up on the ground below, whence the birds could never bother to retrieve them. The box hedges were in blossom, causing some people to ring the gas board, and others to wonder what feline had pissed so copiously as to make the whole village smell of cat piss. Out on the roads, squashed baby rabbits were being dismantled by magpies, and frogs migrating to their breeding ponds were being flattened into very large and thin batrachian medallions that would, once dried out, have made excellent beer mats.

The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie… in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.

Though this isn’t just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was ‘getting to know the neighbours’ as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre’s of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.

There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn’t a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.

The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was ‘Rabbit’, which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.

I thought this book was fantastic, it made me laugh out loud, had me on the verge of tears and everything in between. It has also made me want to pack up my London flat and move off into some small random village somewhere and embrace myself in all village life has to offer, maybe not now though, something to look forward to in my retirement. I have noticed I do love a good village based read Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ had me entranced, and I have two more on my bedside table that are village based. ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield as recommended by Elaine of Random Jottings and P.D James ‘Cover Her Face’ the latter being a slightly morbid take on village life after someone is murdered at a village fete. What other village based quirky fiction is out there?

I think I may have to give in to the charms of De Bernieres words more often now and may have to get my hands on a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin finally. Has anyone else out there read it? What did you make of it (no spoilers please)? Oh and how could I forget if you would like to win a copy of the book do pop by tomorrow before the Sensation Season Sunday post (its Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon this weekend) as there will be a little village based competition and giveaway. Now your thoughts on village fiction and Louise De Bernieres please!

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Filed under Harvill Secker Books, Louis De Bernieres, Random House Publishing, Review

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

I don’t normally review books before they come out officially as though I like to get people excited about a book I always think if you do it too far in advance people will forget or you may just alienate your audience. However if your audience is like I believe my readers might just be then you will be chomping at the bit for the next Audrey Niffenegger book and me reviewing it now won’t matter. In fact I imagine if you had received this book a few weeks ago you may find it very difficult to hold back from reading it, I know I have and it is perfect for my Sensation Season and so I have to give in.

It would be very hard when starting this book not to compare it to Niffenegger’s cult classic ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ which is one of my very favourite books. However sometimes over hyping a book before you have even turned the first page can lead to its downfall and so I tried with my maximum effort when reading ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ not to think of the other book, even if the sticker on the cover reminded me whenever I picked it up.

Her Fearful Symmetry is primarily a tale of twins. We have Edie and Elspeth and we have Julia and Valentina who are Edie’s daughters. From the opening of the book we witness the last days of Elspeth’s life as she succumbs to her terminal illness. Meanwhile across the pond in America the sister she has not spoke to for many years knows nothing of her death until her daughters receive a letter in which the aunt that they have never met leaves them all her money and a flat in Highgate. There is one condition, the girls must live there for a year under the promise that Edie and her husband Jack are never to enter the flat.

Despite their mothers reservations the promise of intrigue (and freedom) draws the girls straight over the day after their twenty first birthday. Once arriving in a foreign country and the foreign place that is Highgate they fall into the lives of Robert the aunts ex-toy boy lover and Martin, possibly my favourite human character, a recluse who cannot leave the house for fear of germs yet whose wife has just left him, The Little Kitten of Death and the biggest character of all Highgate Cemetery which is just over the wall in the back garden. Oh and did I mention that Elspeth may be dead but she definitely hasn’t left her flat but why? With the mystery as to why Elspeth and Edie never saw each other for years and just what she didn’t want the twins to find out slowly uncurling with Highgate Cemetery in the back ground this becomes a supernatural tale with more than one twist and an ending that I never saw coming and couldn’t have predicted.

I really enjoyed it the book, as well as being dark and gothic it looks at humans and how we react to growing up, loss, death and control. The girls becoming independent creates quite a rift between the two of them that wasn’t there before. Robert has to deal with the loss of his lover while he finds a new one and becomes ever so slightly addicted to the cemetery and late night wanderings. Martin has to work out if he loves the wife who has abandoned him enough to let go of his phobias and control issues and actually leave the house. It’s all here along with a ghost story, that in part three was just so gloriously sensationalist and creepy and very twisty (am I making sense still?) that I couldn’t put it down.

If I had any slight reservations, and they would be tiny, some of it was a little contrived such as the girls finding out they had inherited money just before their 21st and leaving the moment they literally turned 21. But then who am I to comment isn’t that the basis of all the great sensation novels and I love those! I also found the last 100 pages were a sudden rush of secrets revealed a few complex twists and suddenly it was over, I could have happily read that in another 50 pages more with great pleasure. All in all a wonderful romp that is so far away from its predecessor you couldn’t compare the two at all apart from the fact they are both brilliant.

Ok so I still love The Time Traveller’s Wife the most but this book could see itself creeping (in a creepy way) into my top books of all time. I just need to give it some more time to linger in my mind and also to catch my breath from the ending. If you want to see another review of the book pop to Rachel’s blog here at Book Snob, she was even more impressed than me. I will tell you something for nothing though, I (and possibly The Converted One… if I can drag them, and its nice enough weather) definitely have a date with Highgate Cemetery this weekend. I imagine with the current autumnal air it’s got a very special and ‘sensational’ feeling about it…

Are you excited about this book? Will you be comparing it to The Time Traveller’s Wife? Do you think its all hype? Do you ever worry after a corking book by an author that the next one will be a flop, or do you over hype authors and books and end up disappointed?

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Filed under Audrey Niffenegger, Books of 2009, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Random House Publishing, Review

The Quickening Maze – Adam Foulds

There have been some books that I have been really daunted by on the Man Booker Longlist and some that I have been really looking forward to. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was one of the latter. It ticked quite a few boxes for me straight away, it was based on true events, it was set in a mental institution and on a superficial level it has a wonderful cover. It sounded like it was going to be a creepy account of a man’s journey into madness.

Adam Foulds novel ‘The Quickening Maze’ is a novel based on factual events that happened in Epping Forest in the 1840’s. The book is set in High Beach Private Asylum where the poet John Clare is incarcerated. Well not incarcerated as he is allowed to wander the woods where he writes his poetry and dreams of his wives, yes wives. You see John Clare thinks that he is married to more than one woman though the depths of the why behind it is never really properly explained. It’s not just John Clare that we meet in the novel though of course.

Through the novel we get to meet all of the other people either working at the asylum such as Dr Matthew Allen who owns the asylum and his family or those who are staying there, some of whom which we get to know rather too well in some circumstances like the man who is scared that his daily ablutions add evil into the world and so will not purge himself. I did find the patients and their varying different issues and how they were treated really fascinating and wanted to read a lot more about them.

One of the latest arrivals to the asylum is the poet Alfred Tennyson who is there to support his brother who becomes a patient. Dr Allen’s daughter Hannah takes it upon herself to try and become the apple of his eye and so we are thrown in a strange kind of love story of sorts. I had no idea that these two world famous poets paths had crossed and so it was all again very interesting. Sadly though despite the premise being so me and the ideas and characters of the novel being so interesting it sadly just didn’t really quite work for me.

The prose is beautiful, you can tell the author is a poet himself, and the journey of John Clare into the depths of madness is written incredibly well so in parts you feel you are going through it with him. The disjointed relationship between Hannah and Alfred and also her sisters and family just didn’t quite mesh with me. This could be due to the fact that I read it on a plane which is not the best reading spot for me; I don’t think that is quite the case though. I found that in what is actually a very short 258 page novel there seemed to be a few too many characters and ideas, if the story had just concentrated on the poets and the asylum it might have done slightly more for me.

I feel bad not praising it as it’s very good, it just wasn’t the ‘me’ book that I had the high hopes it would be. Has that ever happened to any of you? A book you are looking forward to because it has all those magic ingredients that are just up your reading street and then it leads you into a dodgy dead end? What novels have you read based on factual events have really worked for you, which ones haven’t?

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Filed under Adam Foulds, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review

The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt

I mentioned yesterday that Book Groups are great because they make you read an interesting and diverse mix of books that you might not normally read. The same has applied for me with the Man Booker Longlist. There are authors and books on in the Man Booker dozen that I would never have read if it hadn’t been for giving the list a go, there was one author though I was slightly daunted by and that was A.S. Byatt. I had tried to read Possession the year before last and not gotten too far with it, though this maybe because I had masses I wanted to read around the time (it’s pre-blogging but I did keep lists of what I read and tried to read in a notebook) it just seemed a little dense and clever for me. Would her latest novel be the same, would I be able to finish it as I swore I would read every page of every long listed book, would this be my downfall?

The Children’s Book is not what it first appears on many levels. For a start its not a children’s book though I do wonder what children would be let in for if A.S. Byatt decided to write them some. Anyway I digress. The book opens in the wonderful setting of the V&A Museum in London as two boys, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood, watch another who himself is in awe of one of the pieces the museum holds. However the boy they are watching, who we learn to be Phillip, and whom Julian thinks “there’s something shifty about him” suddenly vanishes miraculously. Julian’s father being the ‘Special Keeper Of Precious Metals’ he is at home with the museum and so they tail the boy until finding him living hidden deep down in the depths of the museum. From this I thought we were going to get some kind of adventure novel however we don’t.

From this moment the boys take Phillip to Julian’s father and Tom’s mother who is the children’s author Olive Wellwood. Olive decides she will take the boy in and help him to become his dream of a potter. It is this twist that then leads us to what the book is truly about and that is the art and crafts movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in fact the book spans the era of 1895 to the end of the Great War. During this huge piece of time we follow all the above mentioned characters and all they come across as their stories and journeys develop.

Now as you can see describing the opening chapter is quite an effort so to describe the whole book would possibly end up with me writing something half the length of the book itself which lies at a rather large 617 pages but you will whizz through them. There are some parts that are a little dull and are harder to get through. I found some of the politics and some of the industrial movement explanations and reactions to a little hard to endure. Also though A.S. Byatt is clearly a true mistress of words and creates the most vivid characters there are so many you can end up (without the use of a notebook) getting slightly confused by everyone you meet, who is related to or who knows who? I did occasionally also find that though I loved the descriptions that A.S Byatt gives us it could be a little much, even though oddly in parts the book can be a little rushed. For example describing one or two costumes at a midsummer ball is delightful, describing almost every one of the 100+ guests outfits for a few pages was a bit much.

You do get lost in the rich wording and prose, and though not the biggest fan of arts and crafts I found myself completely drawn into the world and into all the descriptions of the pottery and other crafts and how they were made and I wouldn’t have expected that. If I was asked to sum this book up in one word it would be ‘immense’ the cast of intriguing and delightful characters is vast, the time period the book covers it’s a very interesting one and one of great change, and the writing is simply beautiful. I can fully understand why it’s in the long list for the Man Booker and wouldn’t be surprised if it is in the shortlist.

It does seem I am slightly daunted by both the size of books (as with Wolf Hall and once again I was proven wrong) and authors who have a reputation that precedes them, if you know what I mean? Have you ever been put off by a book that was too big or was an author you had heard lots about that daunted you? Did you then read the book and get a surprise? Do you have any of these kinds of books on your TBR? What other A.S. Byatt books would you recommend?

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Filed under A. S. Byatt, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review

Summertime – J.M. Coetzee

I don’t know what’s happened with my blogs of late they seem to be getting later and later. I was quite a way ahead a few weeks ago but with all this Man Booker Long List reading I am doing far more reading than blogging. That’s not a complaint by the way it’s just something I have noticed. Anyway in the frankly glorious sunshine we had in London I managed to finish reading ‘Summertime’ though the content of the book didn’t quite match the title as ‘summery’ is not how I would describe my first foray into the writings of Coetzee. 

‘Summertime’ is a very clever novel and all at once a very confusing one. It is fiction and yet is the memoirs of J.M. Coetzee. Hang on let me explain… this is a fictional novel written by a researcher who is writing a biography of John M. Coetzee after his death. He meets with five people who were important in Coetzee’s life in the 1970’s when Coetzee was living in South Africa with his Dad himself a grown adult and as many say ‘fathers were not meant to live their lives with sons’.

The start and end of the book are two sections of the Coetzee’s notebooks (are these real or fiction – we never know) that look at his life at that time and in many ways the relationship he had with his father and see’s Coetzee not only reflective but also questioning himself. These are the notebooks we learn that inspire the researcher after reading them and has used to form the book on Coetzee he is writing. Are you keeping up with this? It’s easier to read than it sounds I will admit.

The people the nameless researcher interviews are an interesting collection. Julia a married woman with a child who John had an affair with, even though by the sounds of it it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable relationship between them somehow it went on and bizarrely started sparks in Julia’s dead marriage for a time. I slightly wish this has been the final part of the book as I found this the most insightful and interesting into both Coetzee how he was deemed to see women and also how he lived with his father as Julia stays there for a time. The next interviewee also stayed with them for a while, Margot his cousin discusses their childhood love for each other and his sudden return from “jail in America” and what a changed man he was. Adriana, a Brazilian dancer, believed he was infatuated with her and even more inappropriately her daughter whom he taught. Martin was a friend he made when they both failed an interview, and didn’t quite seem to have a point at only ten pages long. Finally there is Sophie a colleague and lover he had.

In fact this book to me seemed less about father and son and more about Coetzee and his relationship with women. In fact with the mentioning on several occasions of the possibility that Coetzee was a homosexual by all interviewee’s and the researcher I was expecting Martin to have been a lover also, maybe a dalliance.

It is written incredibly well and despite being a complex idea, I don’t know if the other two novels in his fictional memoirs are the same format, he makes the whole thing work and actually read in parts like fiction, in others like research and interviews and then also like a work of non fiction. I couldn’t work out, which riled me somewhat, whether with the fact the researcher always mentions ‘he sold well but was never popular, the public never took to him’ if he is being bitter, ironic or wanting sympathy. I also couldn’t work out if all the tales of what an odd, awkward and dark person Coetzee was, Coetzee is in fact wanting sympathy or doubly proving he is trying to be unbiased.

I was definitely left wondering how much of ‘Summertime’ is fact and how much really is fiction? Either way it’s a great read, one I would recommend to people looking for something different but very readable. I was new to Coetzee and would certainly read more.

Yet another reason why I am so pleased I am reading the whole long list this year as I am being introduced to so many new and interesting authors and works. As you will see I have started reading (which I was quite apprehensive about) ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and am loving it. I am just over 120 pages in and am reluctant to stop every time I have to put it down. At only a sixth of the way through (well just over) it could all change but if it carries on like this it could be a favourite, more of that later in the week.

Back to Coetzee though have any of you read any of the other of the trilogy of his ‘memoirs’? What are your thoughts on writing a fictional memoir like this? What about any of his other works? I have two copies of Disgrace at home and now will have to give it a go, have any of you read it… thoughts (though of course don’t give anything away)?

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Filed under Harvill Secker Books, J. M. Coetzee, Man Booker, Random House Publishing, Review