Monday, 29 May 2017

3 of the best

3 of the best: Contemporary fiction I'm still thinking about


Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

A sublime collection of short stories about love, loss and the places in-between told through the lens of an at once idiosyncratic and recognisable writer.

240 pages, published by Vintage

The End of Eddy
by Edouard Louis

Although a tough read this is a brilliantly personal story that, for me, is exactly what literature is about. This is Edouard Louis's own truth presented in a narrative for others and I for one feel blessed to have read it.

208 pages, published by Harvill Secker

Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson

If a novel can ever lay claim to real place making then Fish Have No Feet firmly puts Keflavik on the map. 

384 pages, published by Maclehose Press

Read the full reviews on the blog

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

"There is evil in the world. There is definitely evil in this world of ours. We carve monuments to our fallen, engrave them with the names of those whose lives were snuffed out when trying to stop evil"

As a teenager I loved weekends in the Lake District; staying over at youth centres trying to get to grips with orienteering and hiking but generally just messing about with mates in the 'great outdoors'. Six Stories took me right back to those days though, thankfully, my own memories are not quite so dark.

Six Stories is the debut novel from Matt Wesolowski  - winner of various awards for his short fiction but published in long form for the first time by Orenda (thanks for the advanced copy!).

The novel is essentially a crime thriller but its Wesolowski's unique narrative structure that sets Six Stories apart. The story is a series of podcasts which set out to investigate an historical murder at an outward-bounds centre in Northumberland. The host of the podcast, Scott King, looks at the case from the perspective of a different characters in each episode. In terms of storytelling this works and allows the full events to unfold as they would if you, the reader, were the investigators.

The structure allows for 6 different perspectives that allow multiple viewpoints on the events that unfold. The narrative builds into a drug and hormone filled nightmare that leaves you doubting the authenticity of all the narrators.

The Northumberland setting works really well as a 'place that conjures monsters of the mind' like the local myth of 'Nanna Wrack' or the Canadian 'Qalupalik'.  Wesolowski is a great writer who has clearly been honing his craft for sometime. This is a great story with a unique narrative structure that delivers a punchy twist. Read it now before it hits the bestseller list. 

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski published by Orenda, 320 pages.      

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

"You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart"

This week's bookish highlight was an invitation on Tuesday evening to an event at The Austrian Cultural Forum in Kensington where Robert Seethaler was reading from two of his novels. Having reviewed The Tobacconist a few weeks back (scroll down a bit!!) it was a real experience to hear the author read from the novel himself. Yes he read in German but the energy he gave to the reading made up for anything lost in not understanding the language!

This week I've been having a break from contemporary fiction thanks to a promotion WHSmith have been running to celebrate their 225th anniversary. Their repackaged 'Yellowback' range of slim paperbacks are inspired by the titles the retailer used to sell back in the early days of the railway. Early adopters of rail travel soon recognised that the smooth and comfortable journey, compared to horse drawn carriage, meant that passing the time with a book was actually possible. The only trouble was that hefty folio editions of long form novels were just too heavy to carry which led WHSmith to develop the lightweight and pocket sized 'Yellowback'.

The title I picked up was Anthony Trollope's The Warden. I hadn't read a Victorian novel for years so I'd almost forgotten the sometimes slow pace and treacle like plot but, to be fair, The Warden actually carries some pretty contemporary themes.

The Warden in the novel is Septimus Harding who finds himself in the centre of a scandal which rocks the fictional West Country town of Barchester. Harding is Warden at a church run almshouse for elderly men in the town but finds his cushy and well paid position being challenged by a young reformer and friend of his daughter. The challenge becomes a legal battle that is played out in the local and national Press that exposes the morality at the very heart of the Church of England.

The Warden isn't a classic by any means but Trollope's writing is enjoyable once you get into it. There is a real pleasure in reading a slim bit of historical fiction and I think WHSmith have done a pretty good job of bringing these titles back as part of their celebrations. Reading and rail are still inextricably linked and anything that celebrates two of my favourite things is fine by me!

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope published by Vintage, 201 pages.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

"Sometimes I feel like I'm half transparent. As if you could see right through to my internal organs, like a freshly caught squid"

I wouldn't say I planned by diary last week completely around the release of Men Without Women but I admit I came pretty close. The publication of a new book by Haruki Murakami in my eyes deserves a day off work and a plan; where to buy a copy and where to immediately retreat to dive into the first page. My only regret was that I wasn't somewhere in Tokyo, specifically in Minami-Aoyama, on a 'narrow street behind the Nezu Museum'. I settled instead for Piccadilly Waterstones.

You see for me reading a new Murakami novel is like meeting up with an old friend, perhaps that friend that you don't meet often enough but the one that you look up to more than others. Murakami is the friend who knows you implicitly but doesn't judge and that's why you keep going back for more. I was recently in Japan on a business trip and couldn't wait to reveal my love of Murakami to my host a charming but stiff corporate CEO, we'll call him Tanaka-san. Needless to say this was the ice breaker I needed. No sooner had I mentioned 1Q84 to Tanaka-san in a bar in Shinagawa and a large whiskey sour arrived in front of me.

Men Without Women is a collection of seven short stories on the subject of men and specifically men isolated through separation from the women they love. Many of these stories have been previously published in The New Yorker but are curated together here thematically linked by their protagonists pain.

There are plenty of classic Murakami tropes on offer here for aficionados; Beatles songs and jazz records, smokey Tokyo bars and ramen shops,  loners and alley cats, but the stories are equally accessible for new readers. In fact, Men Without Women could be the perfect introduction to the world of Murakami. The stories become increasingly whimsical which means you're taken gently by the hand through the rabbit hole.

There a couple of stand out stories for me. In Drive my Car an ageing actor, Kafuku, hires a chauffeur, to drive him, in a yellow Saab 900 convertible, to performances after he is diagnosed with sight problems. Watari, his new female driver increasingly asks more questions and ultimately uncovers Kafuku's double blind spot.

In Yesterday we meet student Kitaru who fails both his university entrance exams and fails to live up to his perceived expectations of, Erika, the girl he loves. Instead he sets Erika up with his best friend, the narrator. But it is in the story Men Without Women itself where Haruki Murakami confirms this collection of shorts as a new contemporary classic; "Because you already know what it means to be Men Without Women. You are a pastel coloured Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won't come out".

Men Without Women is a sublime collection of short stories about love, loss and the places in between told through the lens of an at once idiosyncratic yet recognisable writer.

I read this novel mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami published by Vintage, 240 pages.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

"How many farewells can a person bear, he thought. Perhaps not even one"

I don't often read and review books in the bestseller list but maybe because I'm really enjoying books in translation at the moment I found myself downloading a sample of Robert Seethaler's The Tobacconist on my Kindle. I'll admit I wasn't familiar with Seethaler's work but I came across a brilliant Q&A in the Financial Times in which the writer described the perfect reader as "one who creates his own story whilst reading"; not all writers would recognise such a significant role for the reader in the narrative. I wanted to read more.

The Tobacconist tells the story of Franz Huchet a young man from the country idyll of the Salzkammergut who is sent to Vienna to work at the tobacco shop of Otto, an old friend (flame) of Franz's mother. The year is 1937 and a new wave is about to hit Vienna with world changing consequences.

The shop itself is a microcosm of life in Vienna. Locals from all sides of the political spectrum call in daily for provisions and copies of the newspaper of their choice. Franz realises early on that 'in Vienna there were as many so called professors as there were pebbles on the bank of the Danube'. Simply working behind the counter exposes Franz to a new world view. He develops a particular relationship with one customer, Professor Sigmund Freud. Their subsequent meetings are convincing, at times it reminded me of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, with the pair talking about more than politics and philosophy as Franz starts to share his girl troubles.

Letters, and postcards 'the kind with the pretty photos on them', between Franz and his mother at home illustrate the differences between rural and urban Austria and the dreams that one generation project on to the next. As Franz falls further in love with the elusive Bohemian Anezka his letters home become increasingly self analytical.

Seethaler is a great writer who manages to depict the brutality of the Nazi uprising through the eyes of a young man dealing with his own coming of age drama. The Tobacconist is a clever and enjoyable read and now I'm off to read Seethaler's earlier novel 'A Whole Life'!

I read this novel mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler published by Picador, 241 pages.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

Monday, 1 May 2017

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

"The smoke was unbearable because of the beatings; the hunger was unbearable because of my father's hatred"

I picked this novel up at Hatchards in St Pancras Station one morning before work. What immediately intrigued me was the connection between the 'Eddy' in the title and the name of the author, was this one in the same? Combined with the image of the boy alone and upside down (on a climbing frame?) on the cover I was hooked.

The End of Eddy (En Finir aver Eddy Belleguelle) is a heavily autobiographical account of a young boy growing up in below-the-poverty-line rural Picardy, France, during the 1990s. Eddy is not like his father and brothers; he struggles to conform with all the social masculine norms imposed upon him in small town France. Cries of 'Faggot' and 'homo' surround him at school to the point that an early sexual assault seems almost tragically inevitable.

Edouard Louis does not hold back in this no holds barred portrayal of a desperate life. His prose is visceral and frank, even when translated from French. There are moments of hope when Eddy slowly realises that that his parents ignorance is not their fault but a consequence of the poverty trap in which they find themselves. He writes of a cultural famine that is embedded into the community which goes someway to explain local hatred for anything 'other'. Casual racism and homophobia is de rigour. French media criticised the novel for mis-representing working class life but the fact remains that writing and publishing novels as frank is this is never without controversy.

Love in the Belleguelle family is tough and care is cold but the problem for Eddy is that "early on it doesn't occur to you to get away, because you don't know that there's anywhere out there to escape to". Over the years, and a "series of attempts to change who I was" Eddy comes to terms with his identity and finds the courage to leave town and follow his dreams. Leaving home was no longer failure to Eddy; "Back then, to succeed would have meant being like everyone else".

Although a tough read, The End of Eddy is a brilliantly personal story that, for me, is exactly what literature is about. This is Edouard Louis's own truth presented in a narrative for others and I for one feel blessed to have read it.

I read this novel in almost one sitting mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis published by Harvill Secker, 208 pages.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks