Thursday, 22 August 2019

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

"Kawakami packs a punch with this new story that fans of Strange Weather in Tokyo will especially enjoy"

With Strange Weather in Tokyo (2013) and The Nakano Thrift Shop (2016) Hiromi Kawakami has established herself as a highly idiosyncratic writer. Early on in The Ten Loves of My Nishino you realise we are on similar ground.

Kawakami's narrative presents various aspects of the titular Mr Nishino from the perspectives of different women with whom he has had relationships throughout his life. Each chapter is told, in the first person, by a different women. This is a slightly tricky approach though, when combined with the non-linear timeline, adds to Kawakami's quirky style.

Mr Nishino himself is an unremarkable, and typically Kawakami-esque, salary man with an incredible knack for having women fall in love with him. At times he is charming but at others borders on the creepy. 

Nevertheless, there are hints at the motivation behind Mr Nishino's inability to fully give himself to any women. Flashbacks reveal the death of his sister when he was a young man but Kawakami devotes more time to the women in his life making this story more about the '10 loves' than Mr Nishino himself.

For a short novel Kawakami packs a punch with this new story that fans of Strange Weather in Tokyo will especially enjoy.  3.5⭐️

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell published by Granta 208 pages

Friday, 16 August 2019

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

"Humour like marmite"

Howard Jacobson was a natural choice to retell the story of The Merchant of Venice as part of Hogarth's Shakespeare Reimagined series.Jacobson's renowned comedic observations are packed into every page and there is literally nobody better qualified to build a new world around one of Shakespeare's most famous creations, Shylock.

Relocating most of the action to Cheshire immediately indicates that this is no simple adaptation. Instead Jacobson creates a character study, a profile of a modern Shylock existing in a middle-class 'golden triangle' of art dealers and football derived wealth.

The problem with this novel is simply one of taste. Jacobson's humour is like marmite and his erudition a little alienating. Could leave you wondering if you really understood the point.

There are better novels in Hogarth's series 2⭐️

Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice Retold) by Howard Jacobson, published by Vintage 288 pages

Monday, 12 August 2019

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

"A Landmark First Novel"

In Ocean Vuong's collection of poems Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2018) we experienced a new voice unafraid of the truth in his own story. In his first novel On Earth we are Briefly Gorgeous (2019) we are served a work equal in bravery and in control of the power of prose to strike the most profound emotion in the reader.

The first person narrative helps embed authenticity to the voice of Little Dog, a Vietnamese immigrant to the US writing a letter to his mother, a letter she would be unable to read being illiterate.

Little Dog speaks of his experience growing up in rural and suburban America as an outsider. Though he recalls the lessons from this mother and dying grandmother, Lan, there is little they can do to prepare Little Dog for what lays ahead.

The moment Little Dog meets Trevor, the son of a tobacco factory manager, Vuong creates a tension that plays out through most of the book. If Little Dog represents the immigrant experience Trevor, with his prescription drug addiction, violent father and ambiguous sexuality represents a toxic form of American masculinity.

Ocean Vuong the poet remains on hand with short prose sections that intersperse the main narrative with reflections on everything from Tiger Woods to ££ such is Vuong's mind busting with fresh ideas. This is groundbreaking and genre defying stuff which blends memoir with poetry to create a unique work.

A landmark first novel 5⭐️

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, published by Jonathon Cape 256 pages

Sunday, 4 August 2019

The Wall by John Lanchester

"Startlingly believable"

The near future dystopia John Lanchester creates in The Wall is startlingly believable. A vast coastal wall surrounds the UK to defend against attack following the breakdown of society as we know it from a collossal event referred to only as 'The Change'. With themes of mass migration, climate change and Trumpism Lanchester's premise is the stuff of real and tangible anxiety.

The story itself concerns Kavanagh one of the latest 'Defenders', conscripts who guard the wall from attack by 'The Others'. In the first part of the book we experience the quotidian routine of shift work on the Wall. Life is exceptionally hard; "Back at the Wall, everything was the same ....... Concretewaterwindsky". Though the routine is slow the pace of the narrative is far from plodding. 

The only hope for Kavanagh comes in the form of day dreaming, about the Elite who are exempt from guard duties, about the comradeship with his local garrison and the opportunity to 'breed' with fellow conscripts. Like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) there is a love story at the heart of the novel.

The problem with The Wall is that the narrative runs out of steam leaving the reader wanting more.  Whilst the story is utterly compelling the plot is left longing for answers and further explanations. What was the nature of 'the Change', how freely can people travel within the UK, what are 'the Others' fleeing from? 

The result is haunting but perhaps, there is a much richer story somewhere in Lanchester's head that is yet to be written. Could this be the start of a series of books, please? 4⭐️

The Wall by John Lanchester, published by Faber and Faber 288 pages

Burning, a film by Lee Chang-Dong

"A highly successful Murakami adaptation"

Lee Chang-dong's film Burning is adapted from the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami which features in his collection The Elephant Vanishes (2003). Murakami stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen, it takes real skill to draft a screenplay out of the source material, but in this case Lee Chang-dong delivers.

The film adapts not only the source material (the pantomime student, the Miles Davies soundtrack and the admission of arson) but layers additional tropes from the Murakami canon to great effect. The Jay Gatsby references are reminiscent of Killing Commendatore (2018) and the errant cat could be straight out of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997). The girl who goes to ground and the motif of the well are also familiar themes in the Murakami canon. 

Lee Chang-dong's decision to relocate the action to Seoul and to switch the main character to a farm boy living near the 38th Parallel makes the film stand on its own as a highly successful adaptation. The tension created between the rustic farm and the affluent Gangnam apartment is brilliantly played out in the final shocking scenes that demonstrate the toxicity of male envy.

Burning is an enigmatic and sensuous menage a trois that builds on the source material to create a film that perfectly captures the paradox at the heart of masculinity in 2019.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

So Much Longing in so Little Space by Karl Ove Knausgaard

"One of the finest art history biographies on the book shelves"

Knausgaard's latest work explores the art of fellow Norwegian icon Edvard Munch but don't expect this to be straight forward art history, with Knausgaard you get more bang for your buck.

Part celebration of a genius painter, part biography and part analysis of the myth around the man behind paintings such as 'The Scream', Knausgaard's book explores Munch from a social and cultural aspect that goes far beyond the paintings themselves.

The starting point is that every Norwegian is familiar with Munch's work from their childhood such is his position at the heart of Norwegian National identity. Like Hans Christian Andersen to the Danes and Abba to the Swedish, Edvard Munch is popular cultural hero personified. But what does it mean that a man prone to loneliness, melancholy and tragedy has come to represent a Nation?

It is Knausgaard's personal reflections as he prepares to curate his own exhibition for the Munch Museet that delivers the greatest insight. His own Munchian anxiety, self-doubt and rumination comes from the same place as the My Struggle series that made Knausgaard shorthand for an original form of autobiographical fiction.

One of the finest art history biographies on the book shelves and the perfect accompaniment to the Munch Museet's current show Exit. 5⭐️

So Much Longing in so Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated by Ingvild Burkey, published by Harvill Secker 256 pages

Friday, 26 July 2019

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

"All the twists and turns of the Scottish play"

A number of the leading novelists of our time, from Margaret Atwood to Anne Tyler and Howard Jacobson, have reworked Shakespeare's plays as part of Hogarth's recent project. This time its Scandi-Noir big hitter Jo Nesbo who turns his hand to a new version of The Tragedy of Macbeth (1623).

Nesbo's story is set in a location typical of the genre, the Kingdom of Fife, which seems to be somewhere between Scotland and Norway. The weather is brutal, the streets are mean and shady characters deal hard drugs, in this case 'brew', against a backdrop of gang murder.

Lording over the city is swat team head Macbeth who lives with his girl, the aptly named 'Lady', who manages the most prestigious casino in town. In the course of an drug operation Macbeth receives a prophesy from a trio of street girls; the Police Department Chief job will be his so long as he agrees not to interfere with the production and supply of brew in the town.

This effectively bleak backdrop is a convincing adaptation of the Highlands in Shakespeare's play but Nesbo piles on a cinematic flourish to further increase the tension. "I love you above everything else on this earth and in the sky above", Macbeth tells Lady in a line straight from a cinema trailer.  

Even by Jo Nesbo's standards this is a dark story of murder, double crossing, drug addiction and serious crime. At its best it effectively adapts Macbeth for a modern readership desensitised to all but the the most aggressive brutality thanks to the huge canon of Nordic Noir that now exists.

If there is a problem with Jo Nesbo's Macbeth its one of scale; somehow Shakespeare's shortest play has become Nesbo's longest novel.

All the twists and turns of the Scottish Play through a typically blood stained Nesbo lens

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlet, published by Hogarth 512 pages

Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

"When Will Shakespeare turns up all is forgiven"

Mark Haddon's latest release, The Porpoise, is a hugely ambitious novel which loosely retells the ancient Greek legend of Pericles via a contemporary plane crash and an appearance by the ghost of Shakespeare himself. 

Haddon has re-worked ancient texts before, see his collection of short stories The Pier Falls, but in The Porpoise he really tests his skills of literary adaption. This is an epic undertaking that has all the time travelling transcendence of a David Mitchell novel.

The story begins with a young girl, Angelica, who survives a plane crash that kills her mother. Angelica is raised by her overprotective and sexually abusive father, Philippe, who guardedly shelters her from the real world until, as a young women, she meets an art dealer, Darius, who recognises the truth. This establishing plot line references King Antiochus's incestuous relationship with his daughter in Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1619).

In a fit of jealousy Philippe murders Darius leaving Angelica bereft and struggling to come to terms with her loss. Whether as a result of post traumatic stress or some sort of break-down Agelica imagines an alternate world where Darius morphs in to Pericles himself. For the bulk of the novel we follow Pericles's mission aboard his ship, The Porpoise, with brief narrative glimpses back to Angelica.

This is a dense and unforgiving story that requires full attention, and suspension of belief, from the reader. At times you are left wondering what the purpose is in The Porpoise but then Haddon reminds you quite what a great writer he is. When Will Shakespeare turns up with his pimp friend, and presumed co-writer, George Wilkins in 17th Century Southwark all is forgiven. 

Stick with it. 4⭐️

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon published by Chatto and Windus 326 pages

White by Bret Easton Ellis

"Irritating but occasionally brilliant"

Writer, critic, lover, hater, tweeter, free speaker, transgressive, white, privileged, male; in his first work of non fiction Bret Easton Ellis tries to make sense of his own life and reputation as a self-proclaimed spokesperson for Gen Xers.

Despite amazing literary success with Less than Zero and American Psycho, in particular, Ellis is equally as well known today for his outspoken tweets and controversial pod-casts which offer a no holds barred foray into gender politics and contemporary culture. In White Ellis continues along the same theme, albeit with a good dose of reflection and self-awareness.

When analysing 80s and 90s pop culture Ellis has a distinct and valuable perspective. The sections in the book exploring the origin of the male gaze from Herb Ritts to Tom Cruise via Richard Gere in American Gigolo are fascinating and can be traced through to Ellis's own work in American Psycho yet its the rants about social media, Charlie Sheen, and modern day reputation management that really dominate this story. 

Ellis's world is divided into 'Empire' and 'Post Empire' to describe the two distinct periods in US society following WWI and then in the aftermath of 9/11 yet these themes are not explored enough in White to make any real sense.

Bret Easton Ellis has no trouble in sharing his opinions, see the section around political correctness, even when they seem so contrary to popular ideology but these provocative themes are far better articulated through his fiction. Ellis himself discusses his lack of pace as a writer and his inability to meet his publishers demand for new work. Perhaps a break from social media will do the trick?

Irritating but occasionally brilliant. 3⭐️

White by Bret Easton Ellis published by Picador 288 pages

Looking for reads inspired by Bret Easton Ellis? Check out My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh and Consent by Leo Benedictus

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The Office and Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin

"Widow Miyuki is a feminist icon"

For a novel set in the Japanese Heian Period, some 1000 years ago, this epic historical tale has a refreshingly contemporary view. In fact, what Didier Decoin has created in his protagonist, the widower Miyuki, is a feminist icon who must overcome both physical and social barriers to continue the work of her husband.

Miyuki leaves her village with a mission to deliver prized carp, reared by her departed husband, to the Imperial Palace and the mysterious and secretive Office of Gardens and Ponds. Travelling through the dangerously wild countryside with two enormous barrels of fish was never going to be easy yet Miyuki deals with everything thrown her way with unrelenting courage.

Decoin captures both the authenticity of the historical detail along with the tastes and smells that add a layer of literary depth. The novel is a story about smell from the sour brine of the carp to the ferment of soya bean paste and the rich incense of the palace. These olfactory fragments are a metaphor for the aspects of Miyuki's life that she must face; death, sex and sheer hard work are expressed through the senses. If the novel has any shortcomings it is the awkward sex scenes which are all pretty much avoidable. 

Trying at times, fascinating at others. 3.5⭐️

The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin and translated by Euan Cameron published by MacLehose Press 320 pages

Monday, 10 June 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

"Adam's Utopia masked a nightmare,
as utopias generally do"

In Ian McEwan's most recent novel Nutshell (2016) he experimented with a unusual narrator, an unborn child, telling his Hamlet like story from the womb. Whilst we're on more familiar narrative turf in new novel Machines Like Me don't be fooled by the setting for McEwan's 1980s London is a re-imagined city where Londoners bump into 'synthetic humans' walking their dogs in the park.

McEwan's protagonist is Charlie Friend, a thirty-something currency trader who invests the proceeds from selling his mother's house on one of the first commercially available AI robots on the market. Though he initially wanted to buy an 'Eve' he settles for an 'Adam' when the female model ends up being out of stock. But it is the backdrop to the story that really defines this retro Sci-Fi novel. 

It's the early 1980s and Margaret Thatcher clings to power following defeat in the Falklands, The Beatles (recently reformed) receive a panning from the critics for their latest album and Alan Turing (having chose prison over chemical castration) drives an open top car around Soho as an ageing and flamboyant Elon Musk type character.

It is in this twisted reality that Charlie finds himself tangled in a love triangle with his new girlfriend Miranda and Adam the empathetic robot. Needless to say, this most modern menage a trois was never going to be plain sailing but when Miranda is ultimately seduced by Adam's synthetic charms (she invites him to stay over and "recharge") Charlie is left reflecting on the stark reality of android sentience; 'Adam's Utopia masked a nightmare, as utopias generally do.' 

In Machines Like Me McEwan embraces familiar sci-fi tropes from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) to Isaac Asimov's I Robot (1950) yet does so with real humour and humanity. Unlike Frankenstein's Creature, Adam is a haiku writing figure of pragmatic optimism rather than tragedy but think twice before taking him to bed. 

One of McEwan's best. 4.5⭐️

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan published by Jonathan Cape 320 pages