Saturday, 19 October 2019

Lie With Me by Philipe Besson


"I am this young man there, in the winter of Barbezieux"

Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is a beautifully written love story told from the perspective of a writer who is transported back to school by a chance encounter in the bar of a hotel.

The flashback part of the story is set in a small town, Barbezieux, in France in 1984 where an awkward seventeen year old boy Philippe gazes at his school mate Thomas as he leans against a wall with his 'shaggy hair, the hint of a beard and a serious look'. Barbezieux is 'from a bygone era, a dying city, a past without glory' yet in this unlikely setting a passionate relationship develops between the boys. 

The structure of the novel is well conceived. A middle aged Philippe spots a young man who immediately transports him back to his first experience of love at school. The young man, Philippe discovers, is Thomas's son Lucas. 

That such events were to unfold in this unremarkable town to this unremarkable boy are told with innocence by Besson whose prose is never over the top. Both passion and shame are vividly portrayed with understated intimacy.

The fact that the novel is translated from the French by Eighties movie icon, and francophile, Molly Ringwald is a boon. 

A tender and innocent book you'll want to read in one sitting 4⭐️ 

Lie with Me by Philippe Besson published by Penguin 160 pages





Monday, 14 October 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville



A few short words about an epic read

Herman Melville's literary landmark novel, Moby Dick (1851), is a whale sized read. Not only are the 720 pages themselves daunting but a cursory flick through reveals just how dense Melville's writing is combing literary fiction with essay and encyclopaedia in a unique tome. So what is the experience of cracking the spines on a novel like Moby Dick today?

First up the novel is a classic adventure story with action, heroes and episodic thrills as novice seaman Ishmael joins an experienced whaling crew lead by Captain Ahab. From Nantucket to the South China Sea Captain Ahab obsessively leads his crew across the globe in search of the legendary great white whale Moby Dick.

The crew of The Pequod itself are a diverse group of men. Whalers from New England work alongside harpooners from the Pacific and sailors from Asia. For a novel set in the 1850's Melville's cast are drawn from especially distinct backgrounds but its the relationship between narrator Ishmael and crew mate Queequeg which is the most interesting. Early in the novel the pair agree to share a bunk and to essentially live together in a same sex marriage; "He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married". Over 100 years before the US Enterprise, The Pequod was leading the way on diversity and inclusion.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the experience is losing yourself in a truly immersive book. Melville expertly allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of Ishmael whose naivety and youth permit the switch from prose fiction style chapters to the essays. In this way we learn about the World, about the 'taxonomy of cetecea' and the intricacies of whaling through the eyes of a young man who is literally a sponge.

Everything about Moby Dick is exceptional no less its legacy given that Melville himself died in obscurity in 1891 before the book was celebrated as a classic.  

Broad in ambition and rich in achievement 5⭐️ 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville published by Penguin Classics 720 pages






Saturday, 28 September 2019

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson



"Prometheus turbo charged"

Hot on the heels of Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me Jeanette Winterson turns her hand to the theme of artificial intelligence and transhumanism in new title Frankissstein. Rather than set in an alternate version of Britain, Winterson weaves a contemporary story about medical science and ethics around a fictionalised account of Mary Shelley's time on Lake Geneva in 1816 where she original told her ghost story that would become Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.

The flashbacks to the circumstances that led to Mary Shelley creating the most famous gothic horror story in history are expertly told through her relationship with husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and with their vacation buddy Lord Byron. Likewise Shelley's journey back to London and visits to the Bedlam Hospital are a great build on the Frankenstein myth but it is the contemporary story that really stands apart.

Ry Shelley is a young transgender doctor who falls in love with AI expert Victor Stein whilst investigating the medial ethics around Stein's work. In this adaptation Mary Shelley herself becomes the protaganist, in Ry, which enables Winterson to authentically weave together gender politics and transhumanism in a way that is characteristically thought provoking,

Like McEwan's Machines Like Me the story raises questions about the role of AI and the relations we form with them. In Frankissstein most research and development revolves around the Chinese sexbot industry which drives exponential growth in the development of AI like a turbo charged Prometheus. The unintended consequences are articulated with realistic danger in this cracking read.

The reinvention of a classic story brought right up to date 5⭐️ 

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson published by Jonathan Cape 352 pages





Saturday, 21 September 2019

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid


"Step One, move to the city"

Though the paperback cover looks more like an advert for a Bollywood movie this novel is actually a well crafted work of literary fiction in the guise of a self-help book.

As the title suggests, Hamid parodies the step by step approach of countless business books in this tale about a boy born into poverty who moves to the city in search of fame and fortune. The story is packed with romance and humour which balances the sheer hard work required to 'get filthy rich'.

The narrative is told in the awkward second person which some readers will find off putting. The omnipresent narrator's use of 'you' keeps us as readers at some distance to the main character which ultimately risks any opportunity for empathy. Luckily Mohsin Hamid understands the risk and more than compensates with the self-help conceit.

Read right now for maximum impact 3.5⭐️ 

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid published by Penguin 240 pages






Friday, 13 September 2019

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa



"Read right now for maximum impact"

On a Japanese island, in a dystopian near future, the population are fiercely governed by The Memory Police who enforce social order in a world where things simply evaporate. Disappearances come suddenly and unannounced; flowers, birds, calendars, simply vanish without a trace along with the memories associated with them. 

Seen through the eyes of an unnamed novelist this is a story about the unreliability of memory. Though there is hope in the clues concealed within the sculptures created by her mother and love in the relationship she has with her editor there is an inevitability to life on the island; "After these relatively uneventful weeks, another disappearance occurred..... but this one was more complicated; this time novels disappeared. 

Stephen Snyder translates Ogawa's original mid-nineties prose and is able to maintain the crisp and minimal style that Ogawa is known for in works such as Revenge and Hotel Iris.

Whether as a cautionary tale about enjoying what you have before its gone or as a meditation on growing old and the cruelty of Alzheimer's, The Memory Police is hugely successful. The image of the Memory Police maintaining pervasive surveillance in a world that changes overnight seems as relevant and prescient as John Lanchester's The Wall

All that's missing is more world building; who governs the Memory Police and who decides what and when disappears? The lack of answers if frustrating but then again, when it comes to Yoko Ogawa, where's the fun in full resolution.

Read right now for maximum impact 4.5⭐️ 

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa published by Pantheon 288 pages







Monday, 2 September 2019

Brother by David Chariandy



"A story deeply influenced by the setting"

David Chariandy's new novel has already won a sack full of awards at home in Canada, including the Toronto Book Award, and is now available in the UK published by Bloomsbury. The novel is told by Michael who looks back on the series of events that led up to him losing his older Brother, Francis, when they were young men in the 1980s.

This is a story deeply influenced by the setting of Scarborough, a poor migrant neighbourhood in Toronto sometimes referred to by the monikers 'Scarlem' or 'Scardistan'. It is Scarborough that drives the extreme work ethic in the boys' Trinidadian mother who works double shifts to raise her children. It is Scarborough that taints the expectations of the boys who are acutely aware of the social order; 'Even as kids, we learned to be gentle with each other's hoped and dreams'. It is Scarborough that defines the response to a key incident that is described in the first quarter of the novel.

The novel pivots on the murder of a boy at a local convenience store. The neighbourhood becomes a scene of danger and fear which is described effortlessly; 'Even the ordinary clothes that people hung out to dry on laundry lines suddenly looked suspicious. Conspiracies in the open hanging of slacks and saris, in the headless baby jumpers'.

Chariandy's prose is elegant yet contemporary. His characters are believable and authentic yet there is something that gets in the way of the narrative being truly immersive. Mother is the best formed and most memorable character but Michael's childhood girlfriend, Aisha, is less fully fledged . Like Aisha, as a reader we feel slightly too removed from the world of Scarborough.

A thin novel that packs a bigger punch  3.5⭐️ 

Brother by David Chariandy published by Bloomsbury 249 pages


For a similar read try In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne






Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid



"We are all migrants through time"

Exit West is a story about the migrant experience, specifically that of the large scale displacement played out on TV news as countless families flee from countries such as Syria for a better life in Europe. But Mohsin Hamid does something remarkable in this novel which sets out to tell an intimate version of the story through speculative fiction rather than news reel.

Everything about Exit West challenges perceptions of the migrant narrative in the media. In Hamid's tale the couple at the centre of the story, Nadia and Saeed, meet at an evening class about 'corporate identity and product branding'. Nadia is an accountant and Saeed works for an ad agency. They smoke pot and listen to music as the city around them starts to rumble with violence and rebellion.

Their decision to flee comes from the fear of what's to come and when the opportunity of a 'door' to the west is opened to them they grab it with both hands. Initially they arrive in Mykonos, as a stepping stone to mainland Europe, and ultimately London. Nadia and Saeed pass from country to country as if by magic. 

The trauma of the journey itself is retained in the imagination with space on the page devoted to the experience of being displaced amongst an, at time, hostile community. The tension between 'native' and 'migrant' is played out brilliantly. 

At times Hamid includes vignettes of other characters across the globe dealing with their own specific dilemmas. These parallel encounters serve to support the assertion that 'we are all migrants through time'.

Exit West is profoundly memorable, exquisitely written and truly provocative. 5⭐️

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid published by Penguin 240 pages





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