Wicked by Gregory Maguire

August 28, 2014 Fantasy, Gregory Maguire 0

Wicked by Gregory MaguireTitle: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (Goodreads)
Author: Gregory Maguire
Artist: Douglas Smith
Published: Harper Collins, 1995
Pages: 538
Genre: Fantasy
My Copy: Paperback

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We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz; if we haven’t read the 1900’s classic written by L. Frank Baum we probably saw the 1930’s film starring Judy Garland. What if was to tell you that the Wizard is not as sympathetic as he wants you to believe? In fact, the Wizard could be considered a classic example of a nutcase dictator. It is all about perspective; some may see the Wizard as great and powerful but in the eyes of Elphaba he is just an old fool.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire tells the untold story from the perspective of Elphaba (known to some as the Wicked Witch of the West) and is the basis of the award winning Musical. It is important to first state that unlike L. Frank Baum’s series of books, this is not directed at children. This is social and political commentary, full of sex and violence; it just so happens to use the world of Oz as its basis. As a nod to the world created, the Wicked Witch of the West was named using the initials of L. Frank Baum; Elphaba (L-F-B).

This novel works like an origin story for Elphaba, which gives the world a whole different perspective. In The Wizard of Oz everyone uses names like The Wicked Witch of the West and gossip about how evil she is but we never really hear the other side of the story. As a reader we tend to take what is written at face value; if someone is said to be evil we accept this fact without any consideration. Wicked also plays on the female archetype that seems to associate intelligent and age with witch-like characteristics.

What I enjoy about Wicked is the way the reader gets to explore these concepts of good and evil. I am reminded of Frankenstein with the approach to this topic. Elphaba is different, born with green skin and sharp teeth; a monster that society tries hard to reject. From her parents, to the world around her, we get to explore the harsh nature of society towards something outside the norm. Elphaba herself believes she is soulless and evil but I seem to view this as a projection of the ideas imposed on her by society.

We follow the life of Elphaba through this novel and this allows Gregory Maguire to give a critique of our society from the perspective of someone that is considered evil. Are people born evil, do they choose to be evil or are they pushed into evil by society? These are just some of the questions we have to ask ourselves when reading Wicked; the whole fate verse free will play heavily within the novel. There is also a critique on guilty verse blame, family life, religion and gender role that come across within Wicked as well.

My wife has been telling me I need to read this novel for a while now and for some reason I kept putting it off. Not because I don’t trust my wife’s opinion; she said it had a Frankenstein vibe to it but I kept getting distracted by other books. I finally picked this book up because I didn’t want to see the Broadway musical before reading the book. I am glad I was pushed into reading Wicked; it is definitely my type of novel. I wonder what the next book in the series is like.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Really Want To Read But Don’t Own Yet

August 26, 2014 Top Ten Tuesday 4

toptentuesdayIt’s Tuesday again which means time for another round of Top Ten Tuesday; I like joining in on this meme because I have a set topic to work with. Top Ten Tuesday is a book blogger meme that is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is: Books I Really Want To Read But Don’t Own Yet. I’m looking forward to going through my wishlist and picking ten books. So here we go;

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  • Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
  • Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim
  • The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
  • The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov
  • A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

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  • Candide by Voltaire
  • The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith
  • Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
  • & Sons by David Gilbert
  • The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

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just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth

August 23, 2014 Contemporary, Kirsten Krauth 0

just_a_girl by Kirsten KrauthTitle: just_a_girl (Goodreads)
Author: Kirsten Krauth
Published: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2013
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

“I’m just a girl, Take a good look at me. Just your typical prototype” – Just a Girl by No Doubt.

just_a_girl tells the story of Layla, a fourteen year old girl navigating the waters of adulthood and a budding sexuality. The novel is told from the three different perspectives, Layla, her religious mother Margot, and Tadashi, a stranger on a train. Through these three different sets of eyes we begin to see the complexities of growing up beginning to form.

This novel is marketed as “Puberty Blues for the digital age, [or] Lolita with a webcam”, a description that I’m not too pleased about but I can see where it comes from. just_a_girl (also Layla’s screen name) serves as a psychological look into a teenager’s life in a world that that forces her to grow up far too quickly. It is that type of thought provoking novel that gives you far more questions than answers.

What I loved about this book is the way that Kirsten Krauth looks at the life of a teenager girl but never blames or suggests that her problems are the cause of one thing. Can we blame the internet for the struggles that Layla faces? Maybe, but it is not the sole cause. We could accuse her mother for being ignorant and too focused on religion but then what teenager wants to share that much detail with their parents? I could go on; there are so many little defining factors that make up this struggle.

just_a_girl is a novel that explores different facets of growing up, isolation, loneliness, friendship, love, relationships, religion, sex and the digital world. Layla feels like she has to navigate through life on her own and the reader gets to watch this progress from three different points of view. The three narratives all bring balance and complement each other; With Layla we have a sense of confusion and urgency, Margot provides some ignorance and concern towards her daughter in a stream of consciousness, while Tadashi has a gentle, quiet observation of what he sees happening.

The raw emotion that Kirsten Krauth invests into her debut novel is the real reason just_a_girl works. There is something real and honest with everything that is going on within the pages. This is both scary and uncomfortable but it raises so many important questions. I won’t list some of the questions I asked, it is something that each reader needs to discover for themselves.

Layla struggles to navigate her life, trying to make a connection is such great topic to explore and Krauth did it so well. I was very impressed with this novel, even if I would never associate it with Lolita; I think the two novels are vastly different and comparing to a masterpiece just isn’t fair to a debut author. I could stick all the standard ‘dark’, ‘gritty’ or ‘transgressive’ labels to just_a_girl but I would rather say that is thought provoking and asks some very important questions. It is nice to see a contemporary Australian debut take a risk and pull it off, I highly recommend just_a_girl.

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Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

August 21, 2014 Mystery, Stephen King, Thriller 4

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen KingTitle: Mr. Mercedes (Goodreads)
Author: Stephen King
Published: Hodder, 2014
Pages: 496
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
My Copy: Paperback

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When I picked up Stephen King’s new novel Mr Mercedes, I felt anxious and nervous. This novel has been billed as King’s first hard-boiled detective novel and it reminded me of his past attempts at pulp fiction. Joyland was billed as a pulp novel and by all accounts it had the makings of a good dime-store novel but the end result felt like King stuck to what he does best and only paying homage to the genre. Mr Mercedes has all the hallmarks of a hard-boiled novel, a brooding and jaded detective, a femme fatale and mysterious villain but this read more like a cat and mouse suspense thriller. Don’t get me wrong, this novel is a homage to detective fiction; Philip Marlow gets a mention and a fedora even makes an appearance. Though the third person narrative and chapters focusing solely on the killer meant we are in a thriller and I had to adjust my expectations.

Bill Hodges is a retired cop with not much to do; when he was on the force he was highly decorated but now he is left alone with the thoughts of all his unsolved cases. One of those cases was the psycho-loner who ploughed down a crowd of people in a stolen Mercedes. One day Hodges receives a letter from this killer taunting him into a little game of cat and mouse. This is a high-stakes race against time; can Hodges catch the Mercedes Killer before he strikes again?

I found it interesting that Stephen King picked the fundamental character archetypes found in hard-boiled fiction, in particular to Bill Hodges, and made it his own. On the other hand the plot felt into the typical tropes found in suspense thrillers. So we have a book that is walking a fine line between homage and cliché. When it comes to hard-boiled detectives, there has been a great evolution in the genre and character archetype; it was felt a little dated to see an old white guy again. I felt it to be unnecessary, in fact I am struggling to think of any ethnicity within the book that didn’t come across as stereotypical. It was a shame because you can do so much with a hard-boiled detective and still keep him as a homage to 1940’s crime novels.

I get the impression that maybe Stephen King is the kind of writer that sticks to the tried and true methods of writing within a genre. As prolific author, I’m beginning to question if he ever takes a risk in his writing. I am not one to judge King’s work, I’ve only read a few of his books (I think five) but they all seem to follow the typical tropes found within their genres. Does he take risks?

It is starting to bug me this whole ‘old white guy’ category of novels all feature non-multicultural characters and if we do have some ethnicity, they all feel a little too stereotypical. It isn’t necessary in today’s novels; there is room to explore some diversity within a book. I won’t go into anything about feminism because I fear I would give spoilers with what I want to say but we need more strong/independent women in novels like this.

Having had a bit of a rant, I found that I’ve managed to talk about the novel and not give any spoilers. I did in fact enjoy the ride this took me on, it was predictable and typical of the genre but sometimes it is fun to go on that journey again. In fact (with the exception of On Writing) I think this is the first Stephen King novel that I have actually enjoyed. I find some parts of his other books entertaining but on a whole they do not work for me. Maybe I’ve just read the wrong King novels. Bill Hodges is returning in another two more novels and I will be picking them up and using the books as a little entertaining read when I need them.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books People Have Been Telling Me I MUST Read

August 19, 2014 Top Ten Tuesday 17

toptentuesdayIt’s Tuesday again which means time for another round of Top Ten Tuesday; I like joining in on this meme because I have a set topic to work with. Top Ten Tuesday is a book blogger meme that is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is: Books People Have Been Telling You That You MUST Read. I went through my Goodreads recommendations and picked ten books from there.

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  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  • The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
  • Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer (mean people)
  • The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

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  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
  • On Literature by Umberto Eco
  • My Beautiful Enemy by Cory Taylor
  • Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

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Plot, Character, Style, and Themes

August 16, 2014 Literature 6

bookpileWhile listening to an episode of the Bookragous podcast they had a topic on Plot, Character, and Style and I thought that was interesting and maybe something I can explore further. For those of you that are not aware the concept was taught to one of the podcasters in how to help sell books. If you are not sure what to recommend, ask the customer to rate plot, character and style in the order of personal preference. This can help narrow the type of book to recommend which is a nice idea but my initial reaction was, ‘This wouldn’t work for me.’

When picking books, my preference is towards a book that explores interesting themes; I want a book that challenges me and offers me some new idea to explore. I know I’m different but recently in a review of Divergent I wondered if people read books for plots or themes. I suspect I’m the odd one out but I had it in my head that people like themes over plot. However, I think I may be the only person that picks up a book thinking it will explore some nice themes rather than plot, characters or style.

If I were to pick preferences, I would say style is the most important thing in a book, characters have to be interesting but plot doesn’t really matter as much. I would want the characters to be developed and complex; if you have a good style and characters you don’t need a plot at all. This obviously comes down to personal preferences, but this does bring me to one of my bête noires, likeable characters.

I hate it when people say they don’t like a book because the characters are not likeable. What is the point of that? Why would you want all characters to be likeable? I know this post is about to turn into a rant but I need to say it. In life we know that not everyone is going to be good or likeable, so why except differently in a book. We read to discover new worlds and experience new things; it is impossible to explore some themes or subjects if everyone is likeable.

Look at The Catcher in the Rye as an example; would this modern classic work if the characters were likeable? I have to admit that I read The Catcher in the Rye when I first started reading and I didn’t enjoy it because Holden was whiny and annoying. This is something I hate to admit because I’ve been an advocate for unlikeable characters and transgressive fiction as of late. I feel like I have come to a point in my life where I’m going to have to reread The Catcher in the Rye again just so I can get it right.

To get back on track, let me know in the comments below what your preferences are between plot, characters and style. Also do you think themes are important in a book or am I just a minority. We can also complain/debate about hating books because of unlikeable characters in the comments as well. I just wanted to explore my thoughts in a stream of conscious style; that is why this is a little all over the place.

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Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

August 14, 2014 G. Willow Wilson, Graphic Novel 2

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow WilsonTitle: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal (Goodreads)
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Artist: Adrian Alphona, Sara Pichelli
Published: Marvel Comics, 2014
Pages: 120
Genre: Graphic Novel
My Copy: eBook

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The new series of Ms. Marvel brings about an exciting new direction for Marvel Comics. Kamala Khan is the fourth character to take on the name Ms. Marvel and for the first time ever, we see a Muslim headlining the pages. Co-created Sana Amanat (editor), G. Willow Wilson (writer), and Adrian Alphona (artist) the new Ms. Marvel was created out of the need for a strong Muslim superhero. However, this is not only a hero that deals with struggling with their superpowers but a minority struggling to fit in with the American culture.

The comic depicts a 16 year-old Pakastani-American Muslim in New Jersey struggling with fitting in, family, religion, school and all the normal teenage struggles. Then one day she has an encounter with Ms. Marvel and she confesses that she wishes she was like her. This wish was granted and now Kamala has to work out not only what it means to be a Muslim woman in America but how to use her new shape shifting powers.

“This is not evangelism. It was really important for me to portray Kamala as someone who is struggling with her faith. Her brother is extremely conservative, her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant, and her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.” – G. Willow Wilson

What I found exciting about the new Ms. Marvel is the way this series tries to break the stereotypes. As a teenage Muslim living in America, Kamala has all these ideals and stereotypes projected onto her and she has to navigate through it all and work out who she is. Ms. Marvel represents everything she wants to be; a strong, beautiful woman standing for good. However when she becomes Ms Marvel she quickly realises that being a superhero doesn’t solve the struggle of a misfit. This new Ms. Marvel series isn’t just a struggle with new found powers; it is the everyday struggles she faces. Kamala slowly works out that her new powers, religion or heritage is not what defines her but they do play important roles in the person she wants to be.

“As much as Islam is a part of Kamala’s identity, this book isn’t preaching about religion or the Islamic faith in particular. It’s about what happens when you struggle with the labels imposed on you, and how that forms your sense of self. It’s a struggle we’ve all faced in one form or another, and isn’t just particular to Kamala because she’s Muslim. Her religion is just one aspect of the many ways she defines herself” – Sana Amanat

Interestingly there are a few mentions where Ms. Marvel is referred to as Captain Marvel, unfortunately I don’t know the back story of this but I think it is a positive step. Ms. Marvel was originally created as the female counterpart to Captain Marvel. The move to turn Ms. Marvel into Captain Marvel means that the female superhero is no longer considered the counterpart but a strong and dominate hero in her own right.

You may noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about the art work and this is because I’m new to reviewing graphic novels and have not learned how to talk about art yet. I hope to learn to critically analyse the art but for now I’m leaving it out of this review, not because it is bad but because I don’t know what to say apart from it being good. No Normal is the conclusion of the first arc (first 5 issues) and I’m really looking forward to seeing where this series goes. I think it is fresh and exciting change for the better in the world of comics.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’m Not Sure I Want To Read

August 12, 2014 Top Ten Tuesday 12

toptentuesdayIt’s Tuesday again which means time for another round of Top Ten Tuesday; I like joining in on this meme because I have a set topic to work with. Top Ten Tuesday is a book blogger meme that is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is: Books I’m Not Sure I Want To Read. These are ten books that are on my shelf but I’m lacking motivation to read them. I think I need to be convinced to one way or another.

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  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
  • Tinkers by Paul Harding
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
  • The Black Echo by Michael Connelly

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  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

August 9, 2014 Andrew Smith, Science Fiction, Young Adult 3

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithTitle: Grasshopper Jungle (Goodreads)
Author: Andrew Smith
Published: Hardie Grant Egmont, 2014
Pages: 441
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
My Copy: Library Book

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba is just a normal teenager, who spends most of his time hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. There isn’t much to do in this small Iowa town except skate, smoke and dream of the day they can escape; that was until Austin and Robby accidentally brought on the end of the world. Now there is an unstoppable army of six-foot tall praying mantises on the rise that could end the existent of humanity.

“History is full of decapitations, and Iowa is no exception.”

Grasshopper Jungle is told as the history of the end of the world from the perspective of Austin Szerba. Unlike a diary, Austin prefers to document the entire history, interweaving the story of the story of his Polish legacy with the ending of the world, feeling it is important to have an account of what happened in this small town. This young adult novel is a cheesy sci-fright survival story, full of outlandish monsters and comical situations.

The beauty of this novel doesn’t come from the wacky plot it is with the protagonist himself. While the world is ending, Austin is struggling with his hormones and sexuality. At the heart of this novel is just a sixteen-year-old kid trying to make sense of his feelings; his hormones are always racing and everything under the sun seems to make him horny. Stuck in a small town mid-western where his Christian school had harsh words to him for reading The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier because it featured masturbating Catholics makes for an interesting backdrop. You have a situation where no one wants to talk about sexuality, but condemning masturbation and gay-bashing is perfectly acceptable.

“Stupid people should never read books.”

This is the type of book I like to read; it may have a bizarre plot happening but then it is also exploring an internal struggle. For Austin and most teenagers, their budding sexuality can be a confusing time; emotions are running wild and it is very easy to confuse on feeling for another. Robby has identified himself as a homosexual and it becomes clear in the novel that he has feeling for Austin. This makes it tricky; who does Austin talk to about his confusing feelings? He can’t ask his best friend, his girlfriend, a teacher or most adults. There was an awkward and funny scene within the novel where he attempts to ask his father.

One of the biggest things I took away from this novel is to do with labels; Robby identifies as a homosexual but doesn’t let that term define him. For obvious reasons he has to keep his sexual preferences a secret from the town but is out to the people he trusts. While Austin is struggling it has been suggested on a few occasions not to stop trying to define his sexuality and just be himself. This is a beautiful theme to have within this book and I would love to see the entire world take this on board. Obviously as a straight male, my sexuality was never a defining feature and I’m probably not the right person to be advocating this, but it is a great message.

“Do you think I’m queer, Rob?” I asked.
“I don’t care if you’re queer,” Robby said. “Queer is just a word. Like orange. I know who you are. There’s no one word for that.

I’m glad to have found a YA novel exploring such an important issue and I wish I knew of more like this. I feel like the majority of YA novels are not offering the help that a teenager might need. As an adult, it was interesting to see just how this book explored the topic of sexuality and continuously suggested to not let it define Austin. Sure, there is still a struggle and he is facing conflicting emotions; as a reader we watch him bumble along and make a fool of himself countless times, but this captures teenage life. I find myself being very impressed with Grasshopper Jungle, it is a fun and enjoyable read but at the heart of it, it has an important message.

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Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

August 7, 2014 Literary Fiction, Nick Harkaway, Thriller 6

Tigerman by Nick HarkawayTitle: Tigerman (Goodreads)
Author: Nick Harkaway
Published: William Heinemann, 2014
Pages: 372
Genre: Literary Fiction, Thriller
My Copy: ARC from Edelweiss

BuyAmazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Nick Harkaway is fast becoming a favourite author of mine; Angelmaker was his take on the espionage novel while The Gone-Away World (I hate to admit this but still haven’t read this one) saw him take on the post-apocalyptic. His third novel Tigerman is his take on the superhero genre. While you might be surprised to see me speaking so highly on genre fiction, it is Harkaway’s approach that needs to be admired. His novels have a real focus on the genre but still manage to blend a high amount of literary fiction into the book and this is done so masterfully that you can read it without looking at the themes if you are so inclined (I don’t know why).

Lester Ferris is a sergeant in the British Army, serving in Afghanistan. That was until he was reassigned to the island of Mancreu, where he can serve out his remaining time before retirement without burning out. Mancreu is a former British colony on the verge of destruction. The island is described as the most toxic place on the planet; this is all thanks to the years of pollution and chemical dumping. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation has sent representatives to turn Mancreu into an “Interventional Sacrifice Zone”, which basically means everyone leaves so we can obliterate the island.

This island gives the novel an interesting background; on one hand it is home to a range of ethnicities, from Arabs, Africans, Asians and of course Europeans. Since this is a former British colony you can look at this novel through the lens of post-colonialism and get some great value out of it. Also, as the island is scheduled for destruction there is  a typical side effect; the lack of laws being enforced has led to a hotbed of unwanted criminals. Using the island to support their smuggling operations, a ring of illicit ships known as ‘the black fleet’ lurk in the bay.

Now you have a protagonist in Lester Ferris who is on the verge of burning out. He is nearly forty and has no family to speak of, his life seems to be the army and the horrors he would have seen serving in Afghanistan may have ruined him. His job is to try and keep the peace without stirring anything up; his position as a sergeant in the British Army on this former colony is purely decorative and he has been sent there to keep him out of the way.

On the island, he friends a street smart, comic obsessed kid which sparks a pseudo-paternal instinct within him. He doesn’t know how to look after a kid but the desire is there. He turns to a masked hero known as Tigerman in the effort to make the island a little better without causing a diplomatic incident. The concepts of being a vigilante and paternal instincts play a big part of Tigerman.

I find that Nick Harkaway often uses a great deal of wit, ambition and irony within his novels and I find Tigerman to be a much more mature offering. Harkaway has already proved his skills in the world of genre fiction but now his is flexing some serious literary muscle. Tigerman is proof that he should be taken seriously as a literary author for this emotionally touching and intellectually satisfying novel. For a fan of literary theories there is plenty to explore in Tigerman; I personally would put on my feminist, post-colonial or psycho-analytical hat if I was to approach this novel as a literary theorist, but I can see many different ways to go about analysing this novel. That is before considering all the intertextuality that runs wild within the novel.

This may be the fanboy within me speaking but I was yet again very impressed with Tigerman. I still hold a special place in my heart for Angelmaker and I think that will always remain my favourite but I have to wonder why I have not read The Gone-Away World yet. I have The Gone-Away World on my shelf and will make sure that I visit it in the not too distant future. What can I say, I’m impressed with Nick Harkaway and I love his unique and well balanced blend of wonderfully energetic genre fiction and smart, witty literary fiction.

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