In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

An ambitious exhilarating novel...

 - Monday, July 08, 2013
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner is an ambitious, exhilarating novel. I can't recommend it highly enough. It is already causing a bit of a stir in America, and rightly so—it's a wonderful book. It is a sweeping narrative, which is made up of many complex threads that seem to come together to form a totally satisfying whole. The main storyline takes place in the mid seventies and deals with a young artist, Reno, who has made the pilgrimage from Nevada to New York to establish herself as an artist. She begins a relationship with Sandro, an artist who is also the heir to an Italian motorcycle dynasty, Valera, that began its life in the dying days of the first world war. In the wake of the oil crisis, the whole world seems on the brink of a revolution; the Red Brigades in Italy and the militant leftists in New York are reacting with violence to the inequality and suffering they see in the streets. Kushner brings these divergent worlds vividly to life—the decadent, exploitative Valera family at their villa in Italy, the burgeoning New York art scene at its eccentric best, and the underground revolutionaries furtively planning missions—and has them collide in the most spectacular fashion. As an open-minded, unpretentious observer, Reno is the perfect protagonist to steer us through these worlds. The whole story seems to teeter on the edge of improbability but it never does fall off the cliff. I was blown away by Kushner's attention to detail (she's great on motorcycling, the Italian war effort and the farming of rubber), and by her ability to transport you to a very specific time and place. An excellent book. 
Now to some perfect winter reading, John Boyne's ghost story This House Is Haunted. The novel begins in the foggy murk of Victorian London. Our hero, Eliza Caine, is attending a public reading by Charles Dickens, accompanied by her beloved father. Dickens is at his electrifying best, chilling the audience with his cunningly crafted ghost tales. The stage is set for a horrifying turn of events. When her father dies soon after the reading, Eliza answers an advertisement for the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. It is a spur of the moment decision and she will come to regret her lack of a thorough inquiry. As she exits the train in Norfolk, she is pushed from behind by invisible hands and upon arriving at the Hall, she discovers that the children are without parental supervision and the help is anything but helpful. Like all good ghost stories it is also a detective story, with Eliza trying to piece together what went on in the Hall's past so that she can dispel the malign force that has been knocking off governesses left, right and centre. This House Is Haunted is a fine effort by the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Absolutist. The tension is tightly wound and the characters and setting conspire to add to the weirdness and frights.
It's amazing what a random grab in the new release section brings into your reading life. I've had success in the past with less well known authors (like Julie Otsuka and Karen Russell), and this month I've bagged another winner with Chinelo Okparanta's Happiness, Like Water. Okparanta is a young Nigerian-American woman who was recently named one of Granta's 'New Voices' of 2012. Her stories take place in both Nigeria and America, mirroring the journey of the author. The stories set in Nigeria are simple, almost allegorical tales focusing on class divides, marriage and religion. The American stories are mainly concerned with the ramifications of domestic violence and the journey toward self discovery and sexual liberation. At the heart of all the stories is a searing examination of the treatment of women in both societies: the pressure to bear children, the discrimination suffered by lesbians and other nonconfirmists, and the transformational power of education and literature. A highlight is the story Grace, which follows a young college student gradually accepting her desire for a much older female lecturer. Runs Girl looks at the circumstances that can drive a young woman to prostitution, and it is another high point. An author to watch. David McLaughlin

Flamethrowers, The: UK edition
KUSHNER RACHEL
Flamethrowers, The: UK edition
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Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading
FENBY JONATHAN
Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading
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