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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Underground Railroad


This book has a lot of critical acclaim. On the front cover, there is a big gold star that says “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017.” Hell, even the quote from Barack Obama says “Terrific.” I sometimes wonder about a book with the token quote from an uber famous person, but from listening to Colson Whitehead talking about his book, I knew it was one for me.

And, it really was a heartfelt story which deals with a very important subject. As you may know, the Underground Railroad was set up by abolitionists to bring slaves to the free states via a secret network of safe houses and transportation. Whitehead plays around with the traditional notion of the railroad, creating a quite literal “Underground Railroad” with secret stations and train drivers which was a really clever addition.

The novel is set during the 1800’s and begins on a slave plantation in Georgia. It follows Cora and Caesar who seek to escape using Whitehead’s version of the Railroad to gain their freedom.

The problem is knowing who to trust!

Needless to say, their bid for freedom is epic and is something that you can’t help but live with Cora, it really sucked me in! On her journey, she is hunted by slave catchers seeking the bounty set out by her “owner.” There is one notorious Catcher called Ridgeway who makes it his mission not to let Cora have her freedom.

Does he succeed? You’ll have to read it to find out I’m afraid…

That said, this novel really highlighted the people across America willing to risk their own lives to help the slaves obtain freedom.

It really is a real page-turner from start to finish and covers themes of self-discovery, family, identity, and the huge divide between two halves of America. A story with lots of ups and downs and twists and turns as Cora attempts to see the “Real America” via the Underground Railroad.

My only suggestion is to lose the one-word quote from Barack Obama on the cover, it really doesn’t need it.

I’d love to know your thoughts on The Underground Railroad, or in fact, any book in the world! Join in the discussion on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

To buy the Underground Railroad please click here.

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Anne-Frank-DeskI’ve just returned from a excellent long weekend in Amsterdam. The place really does have something for everyone.

I – like most, I’m sure – first read Anne Frank at school. It is after all a very important historical document. I’ve also read it again in recent years and I always think the same thing. Here we have a thirteen year old girl who has an imagination and writing ability way above her years.  In her diary she writes:

“One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!” (Diary, 11 April, 1944)

It was a interesting experience, in that I was surprised at how much space was hidden behind the bookcase, where the three families took refuge. When reading the diary, I imagined a much smaller space. But, I’m sure spending two years with three other families in relative darkness (as the curtains were drawn at all times) was unbearable.

Understandably, from the beginning of the tour the place had an errie feel. As we walked around, in a single file  it was silent, apart from perhaps a few whispers.

Personally, I could almost feel Anne Frank’s imagination bouncing from room to room. In the room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer, there were cuttings of film stars and photos of art plastered on the wall like any normal child may have. Sadly, in Anne’s case it was an attempt to link to the outside world, a world she must’ve felt alienated from.  Her longing to be free is evident in her diary as she writes:

“I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free.” (Diary, 24th December 1943)

Next on the tour came the footage from childhood friends who all spoke about their memories of Anne. Otto Frank -Anne’s father – returned to Amsterdam after the War, not knowing that his Wife and two Daughters were now dead. On one of the TV’s he recounts little Anne writing secretively into her diary and her wish to become a published author.

imgresAnne wrote many short stories and also the first few chapters towards a novel – which are complied in a book called Anne Frank’s Tales From the Secret Annexe – before the families were captured by the SS.

Yes, it was a very sobering experience, but one which I think will enable me to visualise her surroundings when I read the diary again.

It’s important that her writing will continue to be read. In her writings she captures the voice of millions of innocent children who lost their lives throughout the Holocaust.

Holocaust Literature has an important message to share, and many books have been translated into English since the liberation of Auschwitz 71 years ago. Below are a few suggestions for further reading on the subject.  

Night by Elie Wiesel

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink









Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck is a great humanist writer who focuses the majority of his work on the less fortunate members of society, usually in California. His main qualities as a writer lie in the description of landscape and the tender aspects of his character’s. For the above themes, I suggest you check out Of Mice & Men, Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Cannery Row was published in 1945 and is set in Monterey, California during the great depression. Cannery Row is a waterfront street which had a number of sardine canning factories (the last of which closed in 1978.)

Rather than focus on the workers of these factories – many of whom were out-of-towners – it deals with the colourful inhabitants of ‘The Row’ during the time the canning factories are closed:

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”

At the beginning of the novel Steinbeck writes:

“It’s inhabitants [Cannery Row’s] are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing” (p.5)

A group of men, led by Mack, who have no ambition except to sit around and get drunk and live rent free in an old shed, affectionately called, The Palace Flophouse and Grill. Instead of looking at them in a stereotypical way, Steinbeck has Doc – a well respected marine biologist – describe them in a positive light,

“Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think. […] Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time where people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed.” (p.106)

The local shopkeeper, called Lee Chong who’s store is described as “while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply” (p.7), has a similar air of affection. The people who work at the local whorehouse are all described with similar fondness. This is Steinbeck’s way of showing the reader how reliant the inhabitants are upon each other.

This novel marked a change in his normal style, in the sense that the novel had no real plot. Just a series of chapters highlighting the “real” Cannery row. Aside from human interaction,  Steinbeck talks about nature; particularly about animal life and how it co-exists alongside human life.

“A well-grown gopher took up residence in a thicket of mallow weeds in the vacant lot on Cannery Row[…] It was beautiful in the early morning when he first poked his head out of the burrow. The mallows filtered green light down on him and the first rays of the rising sun shone into his hole and warmed it so that he lay there content and very comfortable” (p.144)

There are many descriptions like this in the novel, but I think it really highlights the way Steinbeck was thinking at this stage in his life. He is deeply pondering man’s place within the eco-system of the natural world.

Overall, Cannery Row is littered with excellent description, heartfelt dialogue and deeply human character’s. It shows an author who is brimming with confidence,  and who has deep compassion towards the poor. On top of that it is a rapid read at 147 pages; this comes well recommended.

What did you think of the novel? As always Literature Fiend would love to hear any discussions points, or suggestions for further reading. Please contact us, or leave a comment below, it would be great to hear from you.  



The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

imgresI’ve been thinking about what to write since I finished Tartt’s masterpiece a few weeks ago. An epic work which weighs in at 864 pages, which I really loved reading.

The length of The Goldfinch may put some people off; but the investment is well worth the effort.

Throughout the novel the themes of loss and friendship are dealt with on so many different levels; too many to mention in this short review.

It follows Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood, after the loss of arguably the most important figure in his life – his mother. Theo sort of imprints the memory of his mother onto a painting he steals after a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his mother’s favorite painting, I might add. Worried about what the authorities will say (as Theo ponders coming clean) the painting sparks an obsession, and not just for the protagonist.

It is important to point out that the painting of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, is a truly remarkable piece of art asimgres you can see from the image on the right. It is said to be one of a dozen surviving works by the Dutch Artist; many of which were lost when his studio was destroyed by the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine on October 12, 1654. Fabrititus – a pupil of Rembrandt – died in this explosion aged 32.

Tartt’s novel is full of memorable characters, apart from Theo. For me, I really enjoyed the lifelong friendship with Boris – a Ukrainian with so much depth to his personality – and was really touched by their relationship, not to mention their crazy adventures.

In this section of the novel Boris talks to Theo about girls:

“Here is my experience. Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.” (p. 667)

And who can forget Hobbie, the furniture restorer who I imagined for some reason to be a blood relative of the BFG; but more than that,  he is a simple character, more than content spending his days in his workshop restoring furniture – I really admired this about him.

The writing style is typically beautiful. However, there is a section in the last third of the book when Theo is contemplating his own mortality and whether he should continue to live. The descriptive quality and somber subject matter is well captured. I mean throughout this section the “Black Mood” was transferred from the page and really affected me to the extent that I had to put the book down on a regular basis; it seemed to suffocate me.

Depression is a theme that is re-visited throughout the novel. In this passage Theo describes the difficulty of living a normal life after tragedy:

“…and though the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying like bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark” (p. 573)

I’m not surprised that The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 and unlike other reviews I’ve read I don’t care it was a decade in the making. Tartt openly admits that she’s a slow writer, but the descriptive detail and depth of research really does help to  pack a punch.

And you know what? I’m happy to wait another ten years if I get to read something as well crafted as The Goldfinch again.

See you in 2024 Tartt. It’s a date!

Wait Until Spring Bandini by John Fante




I was so impressed by Ask the Dust, that I went straight to Amazon and ordered the “Bandini Quartet.” It has the four novels: Wait Until Spring Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill.

It works out much cheaper than buying them separately, and if you want to read them all – which after reading one Fante novel, trust me you will – is well worth the investment.

In this novel we get an insight into what things were like for Arturo Bandini (or Fante, however you want to look at it) as a child. And the answer is pretty bleak; the family are poor – like most during the depression era – and constantly struggling to pay their food bill at the local shop, let alone the rent.

Arturo – in typical fashion – has his mind consumed with a girl from his school, Rosa. She however, doesn’t reciprocate his feelings:

“Rosa, his girl. She hated him, but she was his girl. Did she know that he loved her? Was that why she hated him? Could she see the mysterious things that went on inside him, and was that why she laughed at him?” (p.42)

Svevo,Arturo’s Father, is a bricklayer and hates the winter; he is constantly being “rained off” as we say in England, due to bad weather. He is ashamed that he cannot bring more money into the household; in the first few pages we see these worries as he walks into:

“…the yard of his house that was not paid for..” (p.8) and  to his “…house that was not paid for” (p.7).

On the other hand his wife is a deeply religious woman, rich, in the sense that she makes the home a home. She is described as angelic and despite the lack of money, the love in the household is strongly felt:

 “Maria had a white rosary, so white you could drop it in the snow and loose it forever” (p.7). 

The routine of the Bandini household is torn apart – partly through miscommunication and partly through the local rumors in the neighborhood, when Svevo goes to work for the rich widow Hildegarde to earn money for his family. It is his pride that obstructs his true feelings:

“Bandini sobbed – a grown man, forty-two years old, weeping because it was Christmas Eve and he was returning to his sin, because he would rather be with his children” (p.137)

Through the use of a omniscient narrator the reader can identify with every character at one stage or another; this way their love, thoughts and feelings towards each other really shine through. That said,  I much preferred the first person narrative (from Arturo) in Ask the Dust, which made me laugh out loud on many occasions.

This novel, is an excellent piece of writing; which is poetic throughout, not to mention heartbreaking at times. The more Fante I read the more I begin to understand the term “way ahead of his time” because if it wasn’t for the popularity of Bukowski we may have seen Fante’s work buried deep in dark attics and second hand bookshops.

And that my friends, would be a tragedy in my eyes.


Best Part

Arturo is trying to be a little more “saintly”,  but for reasons I’ll not reveal he lashes out in frustration. He is in his garden when:

“He [Arturo] found a lump of coal the size of his fist, stood back and measured his distance. The old brown hen nearest him got the blow in the neck as the whizzing lump all but tore her head loose and caromed off the chicken shed” (p.46)

This was a harsh act, but the reason I liked it so much is that a few pages later the hungry family are tucking in to a succulent roast chicken.


Rating: 7/10


Ask the Dust by John Fante

“I didn’t ask any questions. Everything I wanted to know was written in tortured phrases across the desolation of her face.”


d449cb3a4cd787f53929a4bf2389e815John Fante came into my life as part of my Charles Bukowski addiction.  Both of these writers appeal to me because of the rawness in their writing.

It captures truth, beauty and simplicity. A little like Steinbeck and Hemingway, but not as literary.

Fante’s fictional works were all but out of print until Bukowski created a resurgence in popularity in the late 70’s. There are four books that document the life of Fante’s semi-autobiographical character, Arturo Bandini – now know as the Bandini Quartet.


Ask the Dust is a really funny novel. Bandini writes a short story that is published, but blatantly ignored by the people around him (even though he is always self promoting it.) It’s evident from the beginning that he isn’t as popular as he thinks. There is a nice little scene when he first meets his landlady and shows her his short story in a magazine; a few moments later she asks for his name. Bandini says:

“…And I was disappointed, for already she had forgotten the author of The Little Dog Laughed and his name printed in large type on the magazine” (Ask the Dust, p. 51).

There are funny bits like this throughout the book. When Bandini meets Camilla Lopez – a waitress – his life takes a number of twists and turns. It’s a kind of love hate relationship, that just never seems to go smoothly.

Ask the Dust, documents how Bandini, although a good writer never really gets the work – life balance he wants. There is always something missing in his life, and I think this theme speaks directly to most people in society. No matter what they have, they always want a little bit more.

That said, I love the animosity Bandini feels towards his place in the world, causing him to continually battle his own demons throughout the novel.

It is evident that Fante carefully constructed each sentence, as the words sing as you read. I even read a passage to my wife, and she simply replied that it sounded like poetry.

I’ll end with the part that was so unexpected I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The scene is in the restaurant where Camilla works; after Bandini has done something nasty to her, Fante writes:

“Then she said a strange thing; I remember it clearly. ‘I hope you die of heart failure,’ she said. ‘Right there in that chair.’ (p.35)

Pages: 194

Rating: 9/10

Mr Mercedes & Finders Keepers by Stephen King

For all you haters out there, I’m going to get this first part out of the way. Stephen King, deserves literary recognition of the highest order. Maybe not for his prose, but for pace and story – he is the master. Not to mention the wide range of genres he writes across.


For me,  it’s all about the test of time. And so far so good.


Mr Mercedes

tumblr_n1f260GpMe1rtynt1o3_1280.jpg 51bn5LZ3gcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Anyway, on to Mr Mercedes.  This novel is based around the retired cop, Bill Hodges. I thought that it started off at a slow pace – perhaps that was just my mind frame at the time – and quickly introduced some likable characters.

Bill Hodges has nothing much to do, except sit at home in his la-Z-Boy and watch daytime TV. Until his only unsolved case comes back to haunt him; this enters Hodges into a game of cat and mouse with Brady Hartsfield.

The main villain in this novel, Brady Hartsfield is as sick and twisted as you’d expect from a King novel.  I really felt for King’s villain, while being repulsed at the same time.

Before I knew it, I was struggling to put this novel down and just like that – it was finished.


Pages: 405 (paperback version)

Rating: 7/10


Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers, is the second novel to this trilogy. After finishing Mr Mercedes on paperback, I rushed out 9781473698994_1to by the hardback of this novel.

I think that this second book was better than the first. Brady Hartsfield who was an integral part of Mr Mercedes takes a back seat for most of this book.

It was a great story that went back and forth from 1978 to 2014; which made for an interesting insight into the characters lives and gave the novel great depth.

It centers around a reclusive author – John Rothstein – and his private notebooks that are kept in his safe. These notebooks represent the power of obsession and the tragic consequences it can bring.

Finders Keepers was fast paced, and you get a brilliant surprise in the last few pages; which is going to make for a eerie third novel – I cannot wait to read this.

Unfortunately, I can’t rush out and buy the hardback as it isn’t released yet.

Hurry up Stephen!

Pages: 370 (Hardback version)

Rating: 8/10


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