Monday, 30 January 2017

"So I officially joined the Life Assistance Agency, that's if financial promise for unspecified services to an unsecured case scrawled across the back of a sports shop flyer was legally binding"

The Life Assistance Agency is the debut novel from Thomas Hocknell and is published by Urbane Publicaions who, in my view, are brilliant champions for new writers who don't necessarily fit the mould. Take this novel for instance which could just as easily be marketed as mystery, road trip or historical fiction so diverse and wildly off-beat is the story!

The novel leads on protagonist Ben Fergusson Cripps, part successful novelist and blogger who finds himself making ends meet by working for the bizarre Life Assistance Agency as a private detective of sorts. In the course of investigating a missing academic in Mortlake Ben finds himself on a road trip across Europe with the 16th Century diary of Jane Dee wife of the alchemist, mathematician and astrologer Dr John Dee.

Hocknall's writing style is pacy, accessible and packed with pithy humour; "It felt like being in a Bentley Showroom with a Boot's advantage card". The narrative moves from clue to clue and city to city with sometimes not quite enough time in each place (I could have read much more about the abandoned police station inside Marble Arch). For me some of the historical diary extracts could have been edited slightly to allow more room for the story proper.

All in all this is an ambitious debut novel that explores some pretty heavy and esoteric stuff through the eyes of a contemporary and irreverent protagonist - certainly a cut above the usual fiction on the grab shelves in WH Smith's at the station! Hocknall's voice is unique and though the novel is not perfect it hints and some exciting work to come.

I read this novel on Kindle mostly on the train into Marylebone

The Life Assistance Agency by Thomas Hocknell published by Urbane Publications, 320 pages.      

Sunday, 22 January 2017

"He reflected that the starlight has travelled unimaginable distances to appear there before him, in an abandoned fjord on the most northerly coast of Iceland"

Rupture is the fourth novel in the Dark Iceland series which has established Ragnar Jonasson as a key protagonist in a particularly Icelandic branch of the Nordic Noir genre. Jonasson writes consistently arresting crime fiction set in increasingly remote parts of Northern Iceland. Added to each scenario is an almost supernatural element, a snow storm or volcanic blackout for example, which adds to to the suffocation and claustrophobia. In Rupture Dark Iceland just got darker when there is an outbreak of a deadly virus in the remote town of Siglufjordur, a child is kidnapped in broad daylight, and family secrets begin to unravel in the isolated and uninhabited Hedinsfjordur.

Jonasson's detective Ari Thor remains at the heart of the novel but this time we see more of investigative journalist Isrun, their relationship neatly builds in each novel which widens the Dark Iceland mythology. Isrun reflects;"Little Iceland was becoming more dangerous almost by the day", but thanks to Jonasson there's plenty for both Isrun and Thor to investigate.

For me Jonasson writes fiction that is at once contemporary and an innate descendant of the Icelandic Sagas that were passed down through the generations. Ari Thor cuts an iconically heroic figure in a World where "folk tales had had such a tenacious grip on the minds of Icelanders through the ages" yet his life is full of the challenges, his on and off relationship with Kristin and the paternity test that looms following a one night stand, facing men today.

Rupture's separate narrative strands come together expertly as Thor has the time to reinvestigate an incident from fifty years ago whilst his home town as its people "had become laboratory rats - locked away securely in glass case that nobody was even remotely tempted to open." This is crime fiction as its most exciting and storytelling at its most authentic. 

Quentin Bates translation is supported this time by a useful guide to Icelandic names. "Icelandic words are pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable" we are told in a prologue that confidet=nty proves that Icelandic Noir and Ari Thor are here to stay. We all need to know how to correctly pronounce Siglufjordur - just watch the literary pilgrims start to stray further than Reykjavik. Ragnar Jonasson is a cultural ambassador and Icelandic Tourism magnet of the future.

Credit is also due to Kid-Ethic for the book cover design which captures the abstract and off centre feel of Jonasson's Iceland perfectly. The Dark Iceland series is fast becoming a book shelf collection classic, complete your set now!

Check out my earlier reviews of Ragnar Jonasson's work here.

I read this novel in paper back mostly in front of a wood burning stove at home in Oxfordshire

Rupture by Ragnar Jonasson (translated by Quentin Bates) published by Orenda Books, 253 pages.      

Sunday, 15 January 2017

"Every glimpse heightened the sense of unreality of living with the woman he loved, but living with her in name only"

Miss Christie Regrets is the second in Guy Fraser-Sampson's 'Hampstead Murders' series which sees  a team of detectives solving a local murder which harks right back to the golden age of crime fiction. In this case the team investigate the murder, by a blow from a police man's truncheon no less, of a respected archivist and historian in his office at Burgh House. As the investigation continues the team are drawn into a link with an earlier crime at modernist icon the Isokon Building which was home, for a time, for Agatha Christie.

At times I struggled to remember that this is a contemporary set novel given that it has all the literary hallmarks of 1930s fiction but this is exactly what makes the novel so unique. Guy Fraser-Sampson builds a believable and thoroughly likeable set of characters especially in the case of the courteous love triangle between DCI Bob, Psychologist Peter and DCS Karen whose hips appeared to 'pivot around a plane of infinite geometrical smoothness', who effortlessly inhabit this idiosyncratic little world.

As the police procedure continues the narrative does, at times, jar with its mentions of Oyster cards, smart phones and the internet which seems at odds with the tweed wearing folk of Hampstead village but the pace is steady and the story unfolds with well honed timing.  For me, the novel could have focused more on the Walter Gropius inspired Isokon flats which are so iconic that they would make a striking book cover. As a Hampstead symbol the flats on Lawn Road are more a bit player than the lead role they deserve to play.

That said, Miss Christie Regrets is an expertly written and structured story which I read as an homage to crime writers such as Queen Agatha Christie herself. This is middle class, Sunday night TV, fare which lacks the physicality of much contemporary crime fiction yet makes up for it with buckets full of politeness and good manners. Guy Fraser-Sampson not only adroitly understands mid century crime fiction but in the 'Hampstead Murders' is actually adding to the literary canon.

I read this novel in paper back mostly on the train into Marylebone (not far from Hampstead!)

Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson published by Urbane Publications, 263 pages.      

Sunday, 8 January 2017

"egoistic. This might sound pompous, but it happens to be the truth. People who live their lives watching what goes on around them...are not going to be able to do creative work"

I don't often read or review non-fiction but I make an exception here for Mr Murakami. Absolutely on Music is essentially a transcript of a number of meetings between Haruki Murakami and his friend, the celebrated conductor Seiji Ozawa. Both share their thoughts on classical music and jazz and on the creative process as a whole.

In short this is a conversation between two of the most influential Japanese creatives of the last 50 years - a unique insight into two idiosyncratic minds. "You mean you have to dig down to something deeper than superficial Japanese emotionalism to understand and internalise it?", asks Murakami.

The text is bursting with detailed references to music from Brahms and Beethoven to Duke Ellington. You can literally imagine the two men sitting surrounded by Murakami's legendary record collection each taking turns to play each other their favourite tracks. Their passion and knowledge pours out of ever sentence; "He's like an old master of classical rakugo storytelling, just going along with his instincts".

So this is not a typical Murakami novel by any stretch but for fans of his fiction Absolutely on Music its a great way to better understand Murakami as a creative and as a man influenced by the World around him.

I read this novel in hard back mostly in Preston, Lancashire

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami and Seji Azawa (translated by Jay Rubin) published by Vintage,  352 pages.      

Saturday, 7 January 2017

"The future was like a newborn wild beast, which their talk domesticated"

I first picked this novel up in November, just before a business trip to Japan excited about the imminent release of the Tom Ford film adaptation, but I've only just got around to finishing it. Truth is that this is one of those books that I've been dipping in and out of for some time, around lots of others on my bedside stack, which was probably not the best way to immerse myself in the story.

Nocturnal Animals, or Tony and Susan as it was originally named prior to the film version was first published in the early 90s and is regarded by some as a bit of a forgotten modern classic. The fact that Austin Wright's novel caught the attention of Tom Ford was enough for me. I'm a huge fan of his adaptation of A Single Man and the original source novel by the brilliant Christopher Isherwood.

In Nocturnal Animals we meet Susan; a mother and wife who 'reads to take her mind off herself' and the daily grind of raising kids, paying bills, being a good wife to Arnold - you get the picture. Unexpectedly into the frame lands an unedited manuscript copy of a novel Nocturnal Animals written by her ex, Edward. The novel is essentially made up of Susan reading the manuscript in 3 sittings. Like a 3 act play the book within a book unfolds for Susan and for us as reader.

At is best the story makes neat parallels between the manuscript and Susan's own relationship, in retrospect, with Edward. As she reads more she begins to re-evaluate her own relationships through the novel. Moreover the arrival of the manuscript actually disrupts Susan's day to day routine and forces her to challenge her own reality, 'Every night before descending into her mind, Susan Morrow performs rituals. Dog walk, kitty kitty, lock doors. Three children safe with a night life, make love sometimes. Roll away from Arnold to the right, puff the pillow up, wait'.

The trouble is that the bulk of the novel is made up of the manuscript itself which is simply a first draft and is seriously flawed in places. Compelling and gripping scenes are followed by long sections where very little really goes on. The book within the book actually lets to the book itself down.

I've still not seen the film but I have a feeling that Mr Ford will be able to make more sense of this - at any rate it will look fabulous.

I read this novel on Kindle mostly in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Nocturnal Animals: Film tie-in originally published as Tony and Susan by Austin Wright published by Atlantic Books,  352 pages.      

Here's the film trailer

Sunday, 1 January 2017

"Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things others can't, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God"

I picked this novella up after having been completely seduced by the window at Waterstones Canterbury earlier this year - great effort guys!

So the Christmas break finally gave me chance to work through my bookshelf as its literally creaking under the weight of a fiction addiction. Luckily for me Max Porter's novella is a masterclass is brevity and unputdownable gotta-read-in-one-sittingness.

"Once upon a time there was a crow who wanted nothing more than to care for a pair of motherless children...."

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is part fiction and part poetry - Porter takes us on an intimate journey into the life of a small family dealing with the loss of their wife/mother. Dad is working on a book about Ted Hughes (the origin of the Crow in the title) when his wife dies leaving him to deal with his own loss and that of his two young sons.

Porter's prose is beautiful, moving and deeply personal - unlike anything I've read before. The narrative is made up of short little scenes and snap shots that are almost like flash fiction in places. Its the images that Porter beautifully paints that will leave an impression over the plot.

With the novel winning the International Dylan Thomas Price 2016 and being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Guardian First Book Award what more convincing do you need? Read this book now, you'll never forget it.
A couple of times this book made me think of Simon and Garfunkel's I Am A Rock; "I have my books and poetry to protect me", I love that song.

I read this novel in paperback over the Christmas holiday in Thame, Oxfordshire.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter published by Faber and Faber,  129 pages.