Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"You only live twice: Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face"

Arguably the best 50p I've spent recently was on a 1964 copy of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, book 11 in the James Bond series. I've bought a couple of these 1960s paper backs before; the cover designs and bold 'James Bond' type are irresistibly collectable, but You Only Live Twice really jumped out to me when I remembered from the movie adaptation that this was James Bond in Japan. 

You Only Live Twice was the first novel published after Ian Fleming's death and can be seen as a step change in the series. Bond fans generally will read in this particular novel the end of the Blofeld trilogy and a specific cycle of books when many of the classic Bond tropes has been established but You Only Live Twice is a fascinating read whichever way you look at it. Movie fans will notice the fresh nuances Fleming introduces in this novel that was published once several Sean Connery/EON films had been released. M's eulogy at the end of the book even goes as far as to suggest that Bond himself has Scottish ancestry which demonstrates that Fleming himself was accepting a kind of Connery/Bond blend.

For me this novel is all about the setting in Japan which Fleming writes with both an awareness of post war Japanese modernity and simultaneous deep roots in the mystic Orient. Fleming himself had been commissioned to write a travel piece about his own trip to Japan and this novel is essentially an extension. The novel is far less about shoot outs, car chases and fist fights and more about Bond's search for a zen like recuperation after the loss of his wife Tracey in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fleming weaves into the narrative a number of key Japanese cultural themes; isolation and suicide, strict societal formality, US cultural imperialism etc which simply didn't make Roald Dahl's subsequent screenplay adaptation. 

Alongside the contemporary references Fleming can't resist scenes set at a Ninja training camp and the Russian roulette experience of eating poisonous fugu fish which are more a reflection of 'exotic' Japan through Western eyes. There is a tendency today to think of Japan in these hyper modern yet deeply traditional terms but Fleming's writing shines a light on just how other Wordly Japan was to the eyes of the sixties Briton.

The story is fun, arch enemy Blofeld poses as a famous horticulturalist in a volcano hideaway which Bond must infiltrate as a favour to the Japanese secret service in exchange for documents needed by M, but the real thrill of the novel is Bond's conversations with the characters he meets along the way. The train ride to the South Islands with Tiger Tanaka and deep sea diving with Kissy Suzuki are moments where the novels always deliver something that the films ignore.

Personally, the scene where Bond drinks post dinner sake from a small tumbler whilst watching the lights along the coast at Yokohama is pure Bond.   
I read this novel in paperback not long after a business trip to Yokohama.
You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming published by Pan,  228 pages.      

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

"As for Helsinki...its innocent smell was like an old cardigan left out in the freezing cold, spattered with salty seawater, fresh pine needles caught in its threads "

The Mine is the new release from ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ Antti Tuomainen who may not be as well known (yet) as other writers in the Nordic Noir canon but has been praised as a highly distinctive writer and been shortlisted for the coveted Scandinavian Glass Key Award.
Antti Tuomainen’s premise in The Mine is a master-class in genre construct. Following a tip off, investigative journalist Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mysterious mine in a remote area of Northern Finland. In the dead of winter, Executives from the firm begin to die in a string of accidents and the mine begins to release its secrets. In a second, and initially unconnected, narrative strand a lone and elderly hitman looks back on his life and work. This is classic Noir from the outset!
I’m reviewing this book as part of Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blog tour which celebrates the best of crime fiction coming out of Finland. Earlier this week I posted by review of fellow Finnish Author Kati Hiekkapelto’s TheExiled.
Tuomainen’s story telling is gripping, the pace is fast and succinct with the whole narrative structured around 3 parts; Nickel, Lead and Gold. Some chapters are a single powerful paragraph whilst others adopt a more pensive prose style that opens up the characters one by one; “He had continued reading over the years, sometimes voraciously, finding new books and new authors, but still the memory of the books he had read all those years ago exceeded everything that has come before”.
Although the drama of the story is strong it is the character development which really sets this novel apart. Janne’s meeting with his estranged father is brilliantly written; “He could see from the man’s eyes that he recognised him, at least on some level, before he fully understood who he was looking at”. Likewise his bitterly failing relationship with his wife unravels in a single paragraph; “The entirety of the conversation after which I lost my family for good...”.
The other highlight of the novel for me is Helsinki itself which Tuomainen brings to life by combining descriptive fact, “Pirjo’s Tavern, a legendary watering hole at the Pirkkolantie intersection”, with unique prose “the bourgeois sleep sound” and vivid detail “It was so quiet that he could almost hear his breath steaming up the windows. This is high quality writing for the thriller genre with a clear and distinct sense of place.
The Mine is an ecological conspiracy drama with all the darkness , secrets and murder we’ve come to love from the Nordic Noir genre but what really sets this novel, and Tuomainen’s writing apart, is the character driven family sub plot which underpins the entire story. The Mine itself is a wonderful metaphor for the hidden secrets and lies that are buried deep within the psyche of man.
I read this novel in paperback (thank you Karen for the advance copy), on a flight between London and Tokyo which took me directly over Northern Finland.
The Mine by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston, published by Orenda Books,  300 pages.      

Monday, 5 December 2016

"Dear child. This is a different world from the one you're used to. There are some situations to which the normal rules don't apply. Thank God, you don't know anything about this kind of place"

'The Exiled' marks the third outing for Finnish detective Anna Fekete, Heikkapelto's hugely popular literary lead who is coming to define a particular strand of Nordic Noir coming out of Finland.

This time Anna returns to her childhood home in The Balkans with the intention of taking a relaxing holiday. Typically for this genre the holiday is seriously cut short when Anna's handbag is stolen at a party and the body of the thief is later found washed up on the banks of the river. Anna is immediately drawn into the investigation which ultimately brings her face to face with the circumstances surrounding the death of her own father years before.

I'm reviewing this book as part of Orenda Books Finnish Invasion blog tour which celebrates the best of crime fiction coming out of Finland including not only Kati Hiekkapelto but also Antti Tuomainen whose novel The Mine I'm reviewing later this week.  This blog is packed full of Nordic Noir reviews from Ragnar Jonasson to Arne Dahl but to my knowledge this is the first time I've read a translated novel from Finland. 

'The Exiled' is a well written slice of crime fiction with all the chilling tension and dark secrets we've come to expect from the genre; "Anna had the impression that their mother had already accepted that her grand children might not be her own flesh and blood".  The locations perfectly capture the pressure of the investigation and the characters that inhabit Heikkapelto's landscapes; "The Sun was like an enormous, glowing eye looking down omnisciently on the Jaras"

Heikkapelto expertly weaves contemporary themes into the story by setting the drama at the heart of the Eastern European refugee crisis. Anna Fekete is the perfect protaganist here as she herself is a outsider with the strength of mind and sheer independence to dig deeper into places others would fear to tread. As such, Anna is the star of the novel and a character that you want to read so much more about.

At times the story slows down and gets bogged down in detail that does little to drive the story forward but at other times the pace is faster and more compelling. Heikkapelto's writing style is immersive and distinct but for me I would have liked a little more Finland so I will be checking out the first two of the Anna Fekete novels, The Hummingbird and The Defenceless

Credit must also be given to translator David Hackston who surely must have one of the most difficult jobs in fiction translating from such a unique language.

I read this novel on paperback (thank you Karen for the advance copy), mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto and translated by David Hackston, published by Orenda Books, 300 pages

Sunday, 6 November 2016

"Some families are so sick, so twisted, the only way out is for someone to die"

Eileen is a dark and dreary character study of a young woman told in flash back, some fifty years later, by an older Eileen. Otessa Moshfegh's novel is no barrel of laughs but don't let that put you off. This Man Booker 2016 nominated title is so well written that, in spite of the the depressing subject matter you may just be moved by the beautiful prose. 

The world that Eileen inhabits, in the flash backs to the 1960s, is a quiet town outside Boston in which she works as a secretary at a young offenders institute. Eileen lives with her alcoholic father in a decrepit house; "The gin reeking through his skin and on his breath obliterated all other smells around him". She has no friends, no ambition and no life to speak of. Eileen barely exists for the first two thirds of the novel as Moshfegh slowly builds the character so vividly and richly; "What I mean to say is that I was not fundamentally unattractive. I was just invisible".

Eileen doesn't so much dream, "A grown woman is like a Coyote - she can get by on very little" but her World is shaken with the arrival of a new colleague at work, Rebecca. There is a deep and colourful chasm between the two women, Rebecca is everything that Eileen isn't, yet they form a friendship of sorts which opens Eileen's senses to a different life.

With new self awareness, in the final parts of the novel, Eileen joins forces with Rebecca in a dramatic final twist. Some readers will find the build up to the these final scenes too unbearable but for me I was happily lost in the bleak back story.

Eileen is a slow moving, character driven slice of literary fiction that is probably mis-sold as a thriller. The flash back's from a mature Eileen complete the narrative with as little hope as it began; "Idealism without consequence is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat"

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, published by Vintage, 274 pages

Saturday, 5 November 2016

"Slavery was a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man "

The Underground Railroad reached a special kind of celebrity publishing status the moment it was championed by heavy-weight influencers Oprah Winfrey and Barrack Obama. An inevitable phenomenon was born but is Colson Whitehead's novel actually any good? I was lucky enough to receive a free review copy from our friends at Netgalley, thank you guys!

The year is 1812 and the novel follows Cora a young girl who escapes a life of brutal slavery at the Randall Cotton Plantation in Georgia by joining the underground Railroad. In this novel Whitehead imagines the underground railroad as exactly that, a secret railway built to transport runaways to free states such as Canada. This is a clever fictional conceit that builds on the real life underground railroad which was more like a network of safe houses and sympathetic fixers who were happy to flout the law by hiding slaves and misleading the slave catchers.

The novel is essentially a chase as Cora flees ever further from the plantation being closely followed by a renowned and feared slave catcher. Whitehead's narrative pace captures the fear of the hunted Cora as she pushes deeper into the unknown. The fact that she has nothing to lose is no comfort as she is subjected to increasingly brutal challenges.  

At its best Colson Whitehead's novel is a stark reminder of an intrinsic narrative that runs through the American Psychology; "And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all.... this nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty." But at times, unfortunately a most times, the novel maintains too much distance. As a reader I found is hard to empathise with Cora. Yes I felt the brutality of her childhood and the loneliness of being a fugitive and yet I know little about Cora as a teenage girl in the most exceptional of circumstances. 

This novel works, really works, in terms of shining a light on a most difficult part of history but is ultimately unsuccessful in conveying the human stories that really created the Underground Railroad. And therein lies the irony, Whitehead fictionalises the Railroad itself but at the expense of the characters. 

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, published by Fleet, 320 pages

Sunday, 30 October 2016

"Drinking his first coffee, he peers out of the window. Its overcast and freezing cold: the pane is scrolled with his gelid breath."

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold is one of a number of titles published this year by Hogarth Press as part of the Shakespeare 400 commemorations which has seen writers including Ann Tyler, Jeanette Winterton and Howard Jacobson reinterpreting the Bard's work. In this case Margaret Atwood takes on the challenge of adapting Shakespeare's The Tempest; and what a bloody good job she does too.

The Tempest, as you know of course, is a brilliant play combining romance and retribution with mysticism and magic against the backdrop of a tiny and remote island. Atwood cleverly brings the source material right up to date with a post-modern twist which sees the story, and the play within a story, set in a high security prison facility. 

The novel concerns Felix, the former Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival (and modern day Prospero) who having been banished to a small town takes a teaching job at a prison. Felix has a vision; to stage the version of The Tempest he's always dreamed of and now, as part of the 'Freedom through Literacy' programme he's teaching he will stage the production with a cast of inmates. "Did Shakespeare always know what he was doing, or was he sleepwalking part of the time? In the flow? In a trance?" asks Felix, but will his new production heal his emotional wounds?

The story follows Felix's challenge of casting and staging the play before the final, and dramatic, performance itself in front of a personally selected audience. 

Margaret Atwood really delivers in this adaptation because she is bold enough to adapt not just the play itself but the 'mythology' surrounding this most unusual of Shakespeare's works which means accepting all the previous adaptations and performances which have gone before. More will be aware of The Tempest and characters such as Caliban than have actually seen or read the play and I think this is exactly what Atwood is adapting. 

The result is a novel which effectively adapts the characters and the plot but does so in such a way that modern day audiences can read both a new story and/or a reinterpretation of the original play depending on what they individually bring to the book. 

The Tempest when originally staged made use of the very latest special theatrical effects available just as Felix's production makes use of video effects and contemporary music and I for one can't wait for the RSC's new production this Winter which is sure to push the boundaries even further.

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood, published by Vintage, 294 pages

Friday, 14 October 2016

"Fiction, she said when she'd stopped laughing, is impossible but enables us to reach what is relatively truth"

Public Library and Other Stories is a collection of short stories around the theme of reading and borrowing books. In-between each stories are brief essays and interviews in which Ali Smith digs deep into to crisis threatening so many public libraries to reveal the human and social impact.

For fans of fiction, like us, this is a wonderful read at a really crucial time. I'm still hurt by the closure of my childhood library which came off the back of brutal cuts by Lancashire County Council but there is more to come. 

Anyway, as soon as I finished Ali Smith's book I felt compelled to dust down my own personal manifesto for the future of the library, as previously published on this blog...

How do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community?

We're now at a point when our libraries need a radical repositioning in the minds of the public. Events organised to celebrate National Libraries Day demonstrate that there ARE pockets of innovation and creativity at some independently minded libraries across the country but how can the success of one annual awareness day drive real change?

Libraries must leverage their role at the heart of the community to fill a huge gap being created by the decline of the traditional high street and cost saving in public services.

So, to that end here is the Word's Shortlist guide to the future for the neighbourhood library.....

1. Extended opening hours, at least on selected days, would open up library services to workers who struggle to leave their desks on tightly squeezed lunch breaks. Opening on Sundays would provide an alternative destination for families and couples during their leisure time. Demand will differ by location but libraries must be open when people want to use them.

2. Our local libraries should offer a programme of regular book clubs, gallery events, music recitals, film screenings and talks that bring like-minded people together. Events need not be managed by library staff but by collaboration with independant bookshops, special interest groups and a network of enthusiastic volunteers.

3. Pubs and cafes have long understood the benefit of providing groups and social clubs with a warm and friendly meeting place. Many libraries have unique and flexible spaces that could be put to similar benefit if they thought of themselves as 'destinations'.

4. Every town has a growing community of home workers and freelancers. Libraries should offer a place for them to meet, share and collaborate in a comfortable and connected environment. Who knows what future partnerships could be forged amongst the book-shelves. Free wifi is a start but communal hot desks would be even better.

5. Our local libraries should be our knowledge hubs offering advice through courses, briefings, oh and yes books. Working closely with local schools and colleges could lead to reciprocal benefits. Some supermarkets even offer after school classes for kids - this should be owned by the neighbourhood library. 

6. Bookstores have long understood the benefits of extending customer dwell time with cafes but libraries have been slower on the uptake. A new generation of librarian baristas wouldn't go amiss. Libraries could become the perfect testing ground for start up coffee brewers and artisan bakers.

7. With good quality newsagents on the decline in the high street Libraries have an opportunity to introduce a well stocked news stand covering specialist and professional print titles not stocked by WH Smith.

8. New start ups, Doddle and the like, are finding a growing market for parcel collection services at train stations. Libraries should work with a commercial partner in this area to help distribute all those Amazon orders (and maybe convert a few to book borrowing at the same time)

9: Many libraries offer much loved read and play sessions for pre-schoolers. This needs to continue but libraries also need to engage young adults. With YA publishing on a high libraries need to work harder at the stage when they currently lose their cool.

10: Finally, libraries need to embrace social media to communicate services and events and to attract new members. Book publishers create huge demand for new titles by developing digital content and working with online bloggers. Libraries are behind the curve.

So how do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community; number of books borrowed, footfall through the door, demand for top titles, membership numbers? If each town had a happiness rating there can be no doubt that a well stocked and curated library, with friendly, knowledgable and approachable staff, that's open when people want to visit would take any town to the top of the league table.

I read this novel on Kindle, mostly on the train in and out of Marylebone

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, published by Penguin, 240 pages

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Autumn edit.....

The best books I've read and reviewed this Autumn (so far).....

"Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it"

"There are not many options for the evening that follows an afternoon of drinking. Only two in fact; remorse, or more drinking then remorse"

"I'm not that Chinese, he says, and its true. He's never felt more American. He's finally reached the limit of his Chineseness, the outermost frontier..."

Sunday, 2 October 2016

"Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it"

Regular readers of this blog (he says with casual optimism) will know that I've been extra enthused of late about the books landing on my bed side table. First there was Ian McEwan's fantastically unique Nutshell followed by Peter Ho Davies epic The Fortunes. This week I'm literally jumping up and down about All That Man Is by David Szalay.

I came across this novel when browsing the Man Booker Longlist but only got around to actually reading it once it had made the shortlist. I've been reading a far bit of fiction from women writers recently, Deborah Levy and Hang Kang come to mind, so the idea of a novel from a male writer about what is it be a man called out to me.

The novel is essentially a series of short stories about men at different stages of life. The narrative is chronological and covers an entire lifetime from men in their early twenties to other men in their eighties yet the whole story takes place within a matter of weeks. The stories themselves are slightly connected, through location and theme, yet stand alone in many ways.

David Szalay uses his personal experiences living in France and Hungary etc to provide a truly authentic voice voice throughout. The earlier parts are strongest (this possibly says more about the reader  - in this case coming up to 40) as the later parts lack some of the emotional detail that really resonated with me. My favourite chapter concerns inter-railing in Europe which captured a blend of youthful optimism but boredom that I remember well.

All That Man Is is a novel about men, written for men. I've read and reviewed similar books recently, Some Rain Must Fall and Your Father Sends His Love come to mind, but for me All That Man Is has the edge - this is a must read and I've got high hopes come the Man Booker Award ceremony itself.  

I read this novel on Kindle, in part, in Canterbury, Kent.

All That Man Is by David Szalay, published by Vintage, 450 pages

Sunday, 25 September 2016

"I'm not that Chinese, he says, and its true. He's never felt more American. He's finally reached the limit of his Chineseness, the outermost frontier..."

Readers of my last blog post will know I'm on a roll. I read Ian McEwan's Nutshell in a matter of hours - if you haven't read it yet you need to. Anyway back to this post, I discovered this week's read, The Fortunes, in an article by David Mitchell in which he commented on the genius of Peter Ho Davies latest novel. Needless to say, I picked up a copy of the book the very next day; I'm a sucker for recommendations from my favourite writers!

The Fortunes is an epic, generational saga that spans from Gold-rush era San Francisco to modern day New York charting the rise and fall of one Chinese migrant family's fortunes over 150 years. This is part essay and part drama but totally captivating from the outset. 

Where Willa Cather's O Pioneers! zoomed in to pastoral Nebraska The Fortunes takes a more gritty perspective via the Chinese laundries at the very edge of the frontier where hard work and perspiration are soothed by dreams of social mobility. This is American history seen clearly through Chinese eyes.

Each chapter is named after a specific fortune; Gold, Silver, Jade and Pearl. For me the novel was provocative, the chapter concerning the 'exoticisation' of golden age Hollywood contrasts perfectly with the threat Chinese migrants initially posed to gold prospectors heading West. Ho Davies writes fluently about the cultural legacy of screen siren Anna May Wong who was the first Asian American star in the US yet struggled with type casting and the taboo of inter-racial sexuality.

The final chapter brings the novel right up to date and completes a narrative arc that begins with migrants arriving in the US and ends with childless tourists travelling to China to buy new born babies. This is expansive stuff yet remarkably lets the reader experience several lifetimes in a mere 200 odd pages.  There are hints of David Mitchell here in terms of scale and in the different narrative viewpoints but the voice it uniquely that of Peter Ho Davies.

I read this novel in hardback, in part, at the wonderful Thame Food and Drink Festival

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, published by Sceptre, 288 pages

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"There are not many options for the evening that follows an afternoon of drinking. Only two in fact; remorse, or more drinking then remorse"

In my experience there are books that you tell your friends you "couldn't put down" and then there are those that you simply, and physically, can't. This is one of those books. From the moment I turned the first page I was hooked into this curious story about murder, deception and revenge.

Ian McEwan's Nutshell is a part adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet; the Prince of Denmark  in this case is an unborn child and the narrative is delivered from within the confines of the womb. Don't worry, our narrator is trustworthy, highly intelligent with a brutal wit gathering what he does through overheard conversations between his mother and scheming Uncle, listening in to Radio 4 and an intuition far beyond that usually credited to a baby.   

Readers will either love or hate this novel depending on their willingness to accept the central conceit. For me, McEwan does an expert, I'd go as far as masterly, job of adapting a classic text in such a unique way. There is simply nothing lost but everything to gain in the telling of the story through the eyes of an unborn baby.

I easily empathised with the narrator and at times read and then reread certain passages, just because, "We're alone then, all of us, even me, each treading a deserted highway, toting in a bundle on a shouldered stick the schemes, the flow charts, for unconscious developments".

Other reviews will, no doubt, be less generous in praise for Nutshell; "is this some kind of joke?" I can hear the book groups gasp "Its just a gimmick" but for me this is writing that makes you sit up, commit to the story and let the World around you slip into a haze. Nothing else matters when you're reading, just suspend your disbelief and read. Even better, find a few space hours and read it all in one go.

I read this novel in hardback, in part, on the train in South East London

Nutshell by Ian McEwan, published by Vintage, 210 pages

Sunday, 11 September 2016

"The history of any country begins in the heart of a man or a woman"

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by Willa Cather which has been recently republished as part of Penguin Classics' Pocket Penguin series. Now, I'm not known for reviewing classics as such in this blog but I am a fan of The Happy Reader who have selected O Pioneers! as their book for Autumn, so I'm in.

Willa Cather's first great plains saga O Pioneers is set in the heart of the Nebraskan frontier at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The story hangs on strong willed and fiercely independent Alexandra Bergson who is given a farm to manage by her death-bed father in the fictional small town of Hanover, Nebraska. At only 16 years old Alexandra must manage a brutally subsistence way of life for her family whilst other's around her abandon the town after drought and disastr.

Despite the harshness depicted in the novel there are love affairs and occasional rays of hope which lift the novel to part romantic pastoral. The fact that this novel continues to be celebrated today in adaptations from TV films (1992) to opera (2009) shows a deep connection with the American psyche. Indeed for many Willa Cather is up there with Melville and Steinbeck in the canon of great American writers.


Willa Cather was trained as a journalist and at times the novel is more essay than literature but in places Cather shows a softer side; "For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning". In truth the story is more domestic than the title suggests; more cattle rearing than gold rush but perhaps this is Cather's own response to Walt Whitman's poem O Pioneers, O Pioneers?

For me this novel is particularly interesting today with forthcoming presidential elections and an electorate bitterly divided on immigration and social lines. In Cather's novel we find disparate communities struggling to survive in a patchwork landscape of Swedes, French, Irish and English families. Not exactly an easy read but a worthy diversion from the contemporary literary fiction I'm usually pouring over. 

I read this novel in paperback, in part, with a coffee and a pastel de Nata at Shoreditch Grind in East London

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, published by Penguin, 208 pages

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"I was there! I saw what you saw, I felt what you felt. As ever. Cora"

The Essex Serpent is the second novel from Sarah Perry and was published earlier this year with reviews in the Sunday Times which hailed it "One of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade. Lofty praise indeed but as a fan of Gothic fiction; from Stoker to Poe and Shelley to Walpole, I was looking forward to getting stuck in.

In Perry's novel we meet recently widowed Cora who leaves London for Essex upon reports that the mysterious 'Essex Serpent' has returned. Initially the serpent is little more than myth from a superstitious rural outpost far from the modernity of the City. Indeed, the novel is brilliantly evocative of the Essex marshes and the spirt in which the Provinces are more often that not portrayed in Victorian fiction.

Cora Seaborne is a strong willed woman with flair, intellect and the ability to influence those around her including young London Doctor Luke Garett. Its her interest in science and geology which initially draws her to the case of the Essex Serpent but its her faith that is ultimately the driving force. Her interest in fossils, and "having her name on the wall in the British Museum" is seemingly stronger than that in her own son Francis but Perry doesn't  explore this quite enough, presumably to make more of the tension built up as locals disappear and sightings of the serpent increase. Regrettebly this tension leads nowhere. 

The best parts of the narrative are told in letter form, this worked brilliantly in Bram Stoker's Dracula as a way to push the story forward. The trouble is that in The Essex Serpent there is simply not enough story.

For me, this is Victorian gothic pastiche. To see how the genre has evolved pick up a copy of David Michell's Slade House which contains all the Gothic tropes and a whole lot more.

I read this novel on Kindle in part in Margate during the weekend of the brilliant Margate Bookie

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published by Serpent's Tail, 432 pages

Monday, 29 August 2016

"Mr Nakano had screwed up. Not a business mistake. A screw up with women"

Readers of this blog will know that I'm an avid fan of contemporary Japanese literature so its no surprise that this week's review is of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.  Kawakami is a leading Japanese author who is popular not only at home but also in translation with novels like the brilliant Strange Weather in Tokyo. For me she is up there with Banana Yoshimoto as one of the most interesting women writers in Asia.

Like Strange Weather, Portobello books have published The Nagano Thrift Shop with cover artwork which includes 'levitating girl' photography by Natsumi Hayashi. If you're not familiar with Hayashi's photography style then check out the link here or on Hayashi's own blog 'Yowayowa camera woman diary' here. For me this is a perfect creative partnership with Kawakami's off-beat fiction and Hayashi's idiosyncratic artwork.

Anyway, back to the novel. The Nagano Thrift Shop is a story about a young woman, Hitomi, who starts to work behind the counter in a traditional neighbourhood second-hand shop owned by the enigmatic Mr Nakano. The narrative is very much Hitomi's but the novel is structured with myriad characters who come and go along with the curios in the shop, each chapter is in fact named after a particular item on sale in the shop e.g. 'Bowl'.

I read the shop itself as a metaphor for an alternative Japan - this is a home for drifters and aesthetes rather than career men or women. The shop itself is in a residential neighbourhood, rather than a downtown business area like Shinjuku, which is interesting for readers of the translated version. Allison Markin Powell does a pretty good job at making sense of some of the cultural references for the English reader.

Hitomi knows little about what she wants in life. Although she is attracted to the delivery driver Takeo, himself a college drop out, their relationship is less than conventional. Both struggle to communicate what they want and build a tentative relationship somewhere between friend and lover.

Other women in the novel such as Mr Nakano's sister and his mistress are stronger and more determined but Hitomi looks on from a distance even when these other women try to befriend her. Like much Japanese fiction this is a novel about identity, loneliness and about non-conformism. With Kawakami's writing raising questions about sex and identity it is no surprise that her novels are so popular in structured, and often formal, Japan. 

This is a great novel and a highly accessible introduction to Japanese fiction.   

I read this novel on Kindle in part in Margate during the weekend of the brilliant Margate Bookie

The Nagano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, published by Portobello, 256 pages