1990s Chunkster

The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: Guatemala, orphan, murder, corruption, friends

I bought this book because the title intrigued me and I hadn’t read a book set in Guatemala before. It is a long, slow read, but gives a good insight into the problems faced by those living in this country.

The story begins with us discovering what life is like for Roger, a child raised in Boston by his Guatemalan mother. The differences between the American and Guatemalan cultures were revealed and I discovered many facts I didn’t know:

Houses in Guatemala generally don’t have basements. It’s an earthquake country, so people aren’t going to rest an entire house over an abyss. During the rainy season basements would flood. In Guatemala City’s General Cemetery even the dead are buried aboveground, the rich in mausoleums the poor in long, high walls, coffins slid into them like cabinets, decorated with flowers and wreaths, Indian boys running around with rickety wooden ladders they rent for ten centavos to mourners who need to reach the top rows.

As Roger grows up he bonds with his maid, a Guatemalan orphan. One day she leaves to set up an orphanage in her own country. When Roger hears that she has been murdered he heads straight to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to her.

The Long Night of White Chickens is a massive book. It took me over two months to complete as it is rich in detail and cannot be rushed. This means it occasionally felt frustratingly slow, but on reaching the end I was impressed by the accomplishment. It is an important book that raises more questions than answers; revealing layers of corruption and violence within a frightened society.

This book isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy detailed, meandering stories and would like to understand what it is really like to live in Guatemala then I think this is a great place to start.


2015 Chunkster

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

Death and Mr Pickwick Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: London, homage, Dickensian, history, ideas

Death and Mr Pickwick was the most atmospheric book I read last year. It was an immersive read, capturing life exactly as it was during Dickensian times. It purports to tell the story of the real Mr Pickwick, showing how Dickens changed the truth when writing his famous novel. I haven’t read The Pickwick Papers, and have no idea whether Stephen Jarvis has discovered the real story, but I don’t think this matters. It was a fascinating book that entertained me for many hours.

Death and Mr Pickwick was incredibly well researched. The wealth of information present in this book was outstanding and I discovered many new things about this period of time. The descriptions were vivid throughout and I loved the way that everything was described in detail – enabling the reader to form a complete picture of the surroundings:

Whole sides of pig hung from the hooks on the long sheds, and there was the smell of boiling meat. Stray dogs, driven wild with temptation, befriended the market workers, sniffing their aprons which were soiled green-brown with hay and grass, an animal’s last meal before slaughter. There was the sound of sawing and steel being sharpened. On the tripe stalls, black beetles fought for territory with the flies. At the rear of a shed, a ragged collection of men and women queued to collect a pint of tripe broth, theirs for the flourish of a jug.

It’s realism occasionally became frustrating, as there were meandering diversions to the central story-line. Some were as engaging as the central plot, but a few fell flat and seemed unnecessary. The style isn’t for everyone and those looking for a plot driven novel should stay away. But, if you like a truly immersive novel, one that takes you down numerous side alleys without caring whether or not the loose ends are tied up, then this is for you. 

This book wasn’t a quick read. The period detail and the numerous diversions from the central plot made it feel much longer than the 800 page brick it already was.  It was so rich in detail that I couldn’t read much at once. This meant it took me several months to complete, and I felt a real sense of achievement when I actually did. 

I loved the originality of the premise and the way it seemed to defy all common conventions on novel writing. It felt different from anything else I’ve read recently and so I recommend it to anyone (with patience) who is interested in Victorian England.


2015 Chunkster

The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

The Mountain Shadow Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: Bombay, forgery, gangs,friends, violence

Shantaram is one of my favourite books so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Unfortunately The Mountain Shadow isn’t in the same league and actually highlighted the flaws of its predecessor, making both books appear worse than they really are.

The Mountain Shadow begins where Shantaram left off. It is set almost entirely in Bombay and follows Lin through his underground life, which mainly revolves around forgery and mafia gangs. It has the same cast of wonderfully eclectic characters and it was good to see what had happened to them all, but I occasionally lost track of who some of them were!

The main problem was that the plot wasn’t as interesting as Shantaram’s. There was still the odd adventure, but it didn’t feel as exciting as first time round – I’d read similar stories before and could almost predict their outcome. It also lacked the goodness of the first book. I loved the way Lin’s character could never be defined as evil because he kept doing wonderful things – setting up the medical centre in the slums, for example. This time he appeared more criminal and so I didn’t warm to him as much.

I loved the flowery descriptions contained in Shantaram, but they began to annoy me in The Mountain Shadow. I’m not sure if this is because they were more prevalent, or I didn’t have the gripping plot to distract me. The story seemed to meander all over the place so the lack of narrative drive probably compounded this problem.

Love unlived is a sin against life, and mourning is one of the ways we love. I felt it then, and I let it happen, the longing for him to return. The power in his eyes, and the pride when I did something he admired, and the love in his laugh. The longing: the longing for the lost.

There were some great sections in this book, but on reflection I wish I hadn’t read it. Shantaram is an amazing book, but this one diluted its power. 



2015 Chunkster Recommended books

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: college, friendship, decades, New York, trauma

A Little Life is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. The evolving relationship between four college friends over several decades sounds like nothing special, but Yanagihara manages to get under their skin in a way few writers can. I was totally engrossed in their story, unable to stop thinking about them – even long after I’d turned the final page.

A Little Life deals with many difficult subjects – including paedophilia, physical abuse and suicide. Some people will find it too disturbing to read the more graphic scenes, but I thought it was important they were included. The way these events rippled through the lives of everyone, no matter how indirectly they were involved, was skilfully shown and I especially liked the way mental health and the pursuit of happiness was explored:

But these were days of self-fulfilment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

The length of the book (700+ pages) will be daunting for some, but I loved the detail of this novel. It meant I could picture every aspect of their lives; imagine myself visiting their houses and be able to predict how they’d react to different scenarios. It’s rare to discover a book where a cast of characters are developed to this extent; to witness the strength of friendship and to investigate how it responds to the strains of life.

I have to admit that I wasn’t enthralled by the first 200 pages. The quality of the writing was outstanding, but I disliked the way the book switched between each of the men – it threw me out of the story and I felt as though I was having to start a new book on beginning each chapter. Luckily, about a quarter of the way through the book, everything came together and I remained hooked for the rest of the novel.

I loved Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, but A Little Life is even better. It has a much simpler plot, but the characters have more depth. It’s still well worth reading both books, but it is wonderful to see a writer develop and create something with the potential to become a classic.

A Little Life is an outstanding novel. It will probably make you cry but, worst of all, it will make all the other books you try for months afterwards feel insignificant.


2000 - 2007 Chunkster Classics Memoirs Recommended books

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: India, slum, fugitive, prison, redemption

Shantaram is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is an amazing story and the fact that most of it actually happened makes it even more incredible. It may be long, but every single page is a joy to read and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Mountain Shadow, when it is released in October.

In 1980 Gregory David Roberts escaped from a high security prison in Australia. He travelled to India using a fake passport and hid from authorities in a Mumbai slum. Shantaram chronicles his adventures as he integrates with the local criminal community; learning how to make money and protect himself in this dangerous environment. He commits many crimes, but the most interesting aspects of the book were the good things he did – setting up a health clinic in the slum and going to extreme lengths to help those around him. This book will make you question the boundaries between right and wrong and to admire the strength of the human spirit.

When all the guilt and shame for the bad we have done have run their course, it is the good we did that can save us. But then, when salvation speaks, the secrets we kept, and the motives we concealed, creep from their shadows. They cling to us, those dark motives for our good deeds. Redemption’s climb is steepest if the good we did is soiled with secret shame.

Shantaram contains everything I like to see in a book – fantastic writing, a cast of well-rounded characters, a compelling plot, and thought-provoking moments of deeper contemplation.  I was gripped throughout and found myself feeling sympathy for even the most notorious criminals. I loved the way everyone was deeply flawed, but most managed to conquer their problems and live a happy life, even when faced with unimaginable hardship.

This book explained a way of life that was unfamiliar to me, but by the end of the novel I felt as though I understood exactly what it would be like to live in this lawless society. The vivid writing created an atmospheric picture of their unconventional lives. Everything was described in unflinching detail, occasionally making the reader feel uncomfortable, but writing with a honesty that can only be admired. 

This is one of those rare books that is almost impossible to criticise. It is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Highly recommended!


2015 Chunkster

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

I Am Radar

Five words from the blurb: secretive, scientists, puppeteers, identity, history

I Am Radar is an outstanding book and is epic in terms of both size and scope. It is almost impossible to explain the plot, and to attempt to do so would ruin the magic of discovering it for yourself, but I can say that it is an immersive experience, vividly describing places as diverse as Norway, Cambodia, America and the Congo. The central theme is one of identity, but this single word is not enough to convey the complex range of subjects covered.

This book is like a literary springboard and I was surprised to discover that the numerous books mentioned within the text existed (and I have since bought a couple). It is a global book, realistically portraying each individual culture and providing the reader with information about a range of historical events.

In the world he had left behind, the differences people used to judge each other, to kill each other, to declare war upon each other – these  differences were often largely invisible: religious, ideological, ethnic distinctions not obvious until a name, an accent was revealed. During the wars, the armies wore uniforms that designated them as Partisan, Chetnik, Ustase, but for the populace at large, one could shape-shift between these definitions, depending on who was knocking at your door.

The science in this book was also extremely well researched. I loved the way that it included complex theories, developing them in plausible new directions. Charts and diagrams were used to explain concepts, the beautiful way they were drawn further enhancing the reading experience.

I Am Radar effortlessly blends fact with fiction and I enjoyed looking up anything that sounded too far-fetched, only to discover that it had actually happened. Some people might complain that the plot meanders too slowly, but I was so engrossed in each element I didn’t care.

The ending was disappointing at first, but with time I realised how clever it was. This is one of those books that improves with scrutiny. There are so many layers and different aspects to think about that more is revealed with every re-reading.

It is the sheer intelligence of this book that impresses me so much. The author’s grasp of such a diverse range of subjects leaves me in awe. I finished it feeling as though I’d learnt more than whilst reading any other book. If you enjoy learning  about the world then this is an essential read. It isn’t easy or quick, but all effort is rewarded.