Friday, 29 April 2016

Seems like everyone is claiming a tenuous link to the Bard this year and this blog is no exception!

As the World descends on Stratford-upon-Avon for the Shakespeare 400 celebrations spare a thought for lesser known Thame. This small Oxfordshire market town, and home of The Word’s Shortlist, was the setting of an intriguing murder in 1587 that proved to be a shot in the arm for Shakespeare’s career as an actor.

In the summer of 1587 popular performing troupe The Queen’s Men were touring the Provinces with their pop up theatre. One night in June they found themselves in Thame performing to crowds at White Hound Close; a park of sorts that hosted street entertainment. Shortly after the performance a heated argument broke out between two of the lead actors William Knell and John Towne.

Quite how the argument turned into a brutal brawl we’ll never know but what is evident is that the loser, Knell, paid the ultimate price and was murdered there in White Hound Close. 

But with every ending there is a new beginning.......The Queen’s Men suddenly had an opening. With the rest of the tour ahead of them a young actor called William Shakespeare was recruited to fill William Knell’s shoes.


Sunday, 24 April 2016

#amreading Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

"There are no distinctions; no headquarters, no Tokyo. The police force is monolithic"

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was a blockbuster of a book when originally published in Japan back in 2013. This edition, with translation by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, marks the first time that the 'Mystery Writers of Japan Award' winning author has been translated into English.

The novel quickly establishes its gritty crime credentials with protagonist Police Press Director, Yoshinobu Mikami, sent to inspect the dead body of a young woman who may or may not be his own missing teenage daughter Ayumi. This comes at a time when his own police unit are called to re-examine a unresolved kidnapping case from some years ago that involved the death of another young girl following a botched ransom attempt. 

Six Four is packed full of enough characters, plot detail and despair that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was translated from Swedish. Yokohama understands the crime genre and delivers a hard-boiled page turner that's equal to Steig Larsson or Arne Dahl. 

That said, its the unique Japanese context that sets this book apart. The clipped and concise prose leaves no room for hyperbole and the emotional austerity between Mikami and his wife is minimal in the extreme. Jonathan Lloyd-Davies' translation appears completely at ease with Japanese nuance whilst at the same time taking us, the English reader, by the hand through the idiosyncrasies of J-lit.

The crux of the novel is concerned with mistrust within Police departments which stems mostly from professional curtesy and the tendency to completely respect seniority at work. Further still are other complex social strata between officers who competed in Kendo as juniors. Martial Arts spilling into their careers with bamboo swords and armour replaced by mobile phones and suits. For a culture concerned with social etiquette and privacy, the silent phone calls that torment a number of the characters is especially chilling as is the mystery around the 'Koda memo'.

Though the narrative takes place over only one week Six Four is a long novel that probably includes one too many similarly named characters but this a better than average slice of crime fiction thats so Japanese you can taste the burning incense. Give the Nordic noir a break and look East.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, published by Quercus, 599 pages

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A bookish photo tour of Amsterdam and Utrecht...

The 'Dwarsligger' format is a really interesting travel solution for readers which effectively reduces the size of a paperback to the size of a smart-phone. The first time I'd seen this was at Schiphol airport.

Exploring the west canals between Centraal and Jordaan  you'll come across plenty of independent book stores (and even a Waterstones if you need to stock up on English language reads)

This nifty lending library has been set up just outside Utrecht Centraal Railway Station - its simple just drop off a book and pick another one up! Looks popular but the shelves need a stock up.

Amsterdam boasts Europe's largest public library (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam) which is open seven days a week. I found loads of really unique spaces to grab a few minutes reading time including a neat 7th floor cafe.

The Hoxton Hotel has a lobby bookshelf stacked with Penguin Classics. More could be done to select paperbacks with a Dutch setting but its a nice welcome nonetheless.

This forgotten bookstore is in desperate need of a loving owner. Perhaps one inspired by long evenings with a beer and book as the sun sets over Keizergracht?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

#amreading The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

"I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage "

So begins The Wallcreeper, curious little novel about love, loss and birdwatching.

The novel's opening scene, in which newlyweds Tiffany and Stephen are involved in a car accident, sets the tone for the novel. Narrator Tiffany matter of factly deals with her miscarriage whilst husband Stephen rushes to rescue the injured bird that caused their car to swerve.

The narrative moves at breakneck speed as if Zink was compelled to write a succinct novel of less than 200 pages. We learn that Tiffany has recently migrated from the US to live with her husband, and obsessive ornithologist, Stephen in Switzerland where the pair spend time bird watching and attending environmental and conservation conferences. Despite this commitment to wildlife there is also time for plenty of sex both with each other and various lovers.

At times the pithy prose is powerful, the defining accident in the opening chapter in particular, but at other times it becomes increasingly hard to keep up with Zink's train of thought. Tiffany is hard to figure out given the emotional distance Zink creates; she maintains relationships with boyfriends and tolerates Stephen's indiscretions with blasé detachment whilst showing far more compassion for river conservation.

Although lacking to some degree in human depth, the story is packed full of symbolism and allegory. Zink clearly understands the subject matter, indeed according to newspaper articles her writing first caught the attention of friend Jonathan Franzen when she wrote a coercive essay about ornithology. 

There are a number of problems with this novel, from pacing to character development, but at the same time the themes are so memorable and some of the prose so off beat that you'll want to dig into Zink's second novel Mislaid straight away. Perhaps this is the reason the New York Times named the novel as one of the most notable of 2014. Nell Zink is a refreshing and truly idiosyncratic voice that won't have heard the last off.

The novel is now out in paperback but is also available in a box set with Zink's newer novel Mislaid

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, published by Fourth Estate, 176 pages

Sunday, 3 April 2016

A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanigihara now out in paperback

"..things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”  

I reviewed this book when it was first published in hardback. It had such an effect on me that it more than deserves a second review now that the paperback version is on the shelves.

A Little Life is an epic coming-of-middle-age novel that follows a group of four friends after they graduate from college. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm each formed a bond in their twenties that ties them together through the rest of their lives. Lawyer Jude and actor Willem, both orphaned, take centre stage as the story develops in the apartment they rent together in NYC. The novel was shortlisted for both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize.

I was thoroughly drawn into this novel from the very beginning bingeing on pages on the train, in the street and waiting for the lift at work. I can only apologise for the inevitable "Good Mornings" that I've been ignoring for the passed couple of weeks. Thinking back, the only other novel to have this affect on me recently was David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks

So, why is this book so easy to fall in love with? Hanya Yanagihara creates an intimate world full of characters we actually believe, empathise with and more importantly trust. Over 750 beautifully written pages we are rewarded with a lifetime's worth of compelling and at times devastating narrative.

For me, the genius of the novel is the way Yanagihara connects us with the characters, particularly Jude, before taking us to places few writers can effectively conjure. As we learn more about Jude's childhood there a scenes of child abuse, rape and self-harm that are devastating initially and eventually moving in a way few novels can actually deliver. 

But the novel is also accomplished in the detail, the extreme loyalty that Jude's friends and adopted family demonstrate throughout is unwavering and beautifully written. Harold, Jude's former mentor and later adopted father, is tender, kind and protective even when pushed to inconceivable lengths. The love he shows for both Jude and Willem is one of the most eloquent parts of the book.

Never indulgent, this is a story that needs many pages to breath. After all, real life isn't about one off incidents or experiences but about the way these are played out daily for years after.

To live with these characters is an unforgettable experience that you'll miss when its over. Prepare yourself now, life will never be the same again. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara, published by Picador, 751 pages

Saturday, 2 April 2016

#amreading Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard

"We were nobodies, two young lit. students chatting away in a rickety old house in a small town at the edge of the world"

I was new to Knausgaard and the My Struggle series when I picked up a copy of Some Rain Must Fall at Hatchard's in St Pancras station. I don't know if it was the 'literary sensation' label that had previously put me off or the fact that I couldn't quite work out whether these books for fiction or biography?

Anyway, I downloaded a Kindle sample (at 600+ pages this is a back breaker of a novel) and dived in as the train left London for Kent. By the time I was crossing the Medway near Rochester I'd downloaded the entire book. 

The story begins with 19 year old Karl Ove Knausgaard back-packing through Europe before moving to Bergen to study at the prestigious Writing Academy. Knausgaard's open and brutally frank writing brilliantly captures the optimism and pretentious hope that a new academic term in a new city offers.  As the term begins Karl Ove is soon left in serious doubt about his ability as a writer. His early submissions fall way short of the rest of the class. How had he won a place on the course if his work was so poor? Life in Bergen isn't working out to plan. His lowest point is when he plans to submit a poem made up entirely of the C-word.

The novel moves through the 80s with more career disappointment, personal failure and self loathing. There are occasional moments of tenderness, caring for his elderly grandparents and coming to terms with the total breakdown of his relationship with his father, but it is remarkable how far Knausgaard will go to bare his soul to the reader throughout his lengthy existential crisis.

Knausgaard is as comfortable writing about the history of literary criticism as he is describing how he felt when he discovered his girlfriend was sleeping with his brother. Within one chapter the novel blends different degrees of disappointment and holds back from any Millenial style gloss - this is warts and all and never played out for sympathy. Knausgaard is an middle years everyman (flawed and talented in equal measure).

When eventual career success does arrive, way after his peers, it is immediately followed by anxiety when it comes to the media and the critical reception. There are times when you wish Karl Ove would just give up and get a job in a bar but of course you know that a some point this character becomes the Nordic literary sensation that audiences go crazy to meet at book festivals. 

The hardback copy of this book is quite different from the previous in the series which include a close up photograph of Karl Ove in all his rugged Nordic honesty. The publishers clearly understand that 'Knausgaard' (the Brand) owns this niche between nordic fiction and memoir but are exploring something different with Some Rain Must Fall which I suspect will result in more new readers than just me.

For me Some Rain Must Fall is a literary memoir written by a great fiction writer for readers of fiction. In this respect the book is genre redefining - an autobiographical epic through the lens of a writer desperate to write a literary classic. 

Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard, published by Harvill Secker, RRP £17,99, 672 pages