Like listening to the entire Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chan discography in one go.



Manchester and moodiness.

British author Riley (the debut novel Cold Water, not reviewed) isn’t one for a happy tale, or even a mildly heartwarming tale. That’s not to say she’s out to shock and offend with brutal violence or sickening depravity, but rather to scratch her way around and inside the lives of characters, primarily in Manchester and afflicted with a coruscating malaise. Sounds grim, to be sure, but the stories here are actually quite lively for all their mopiness. Most of this first collection is taken up by the novella “Sick Notes,” narrated by one Esther, a young bookworm just back in town from a sojourn in America, where she may or may not have been going to school (not the most reliable narrator, you see). Back in Manchester—a rain-soaked place of dank flats and grimy pubs—Esther moves right back in with Donna, the two of them a tough team functioning outwardly like twins, sharing the same books and habits, and holding the world in the same cool, ironic disdain. Since Esther is the narrator, however, we’re privy to the corrosive uncertainty and emotional blankness that roils within her, resulting in an outer image of quirky haughtiness and spiky indifference, yet an inner world of self-mutilation and anorexia. Riley doesn’t cheapen Esther’s turmoil by giving us an easy reason for her state of mind. She is as she is, no more certain of why than the reader: “Who knows what I’m playing? Debonair self-sabotage I wish.” The handful of stories that bulk out the collection at the end are a grab bag of similar tales in similar settings (sad girls in sad cities), and, while Riley keeps them short and sour in a rapid-fire assemblage of misery, they can’t help but seem like shadows or afterimages of the novella, itself a mini-masterpiece about dwindling hopes and the near-impossibility of opening oneself to the world after a lifetime of locked doors.

Like listening to the entire Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chan discography in one go.

Pub Date: June 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-7867-1326-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2004

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.


Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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