Monday, 28 August 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

"Over lunch, for thirty minutes a day, he reread Dickens, Trollope, or Goethe, and he remembered who he was inside."

Part way through Min Jin Lee's sprawling Pachinko one of her lead characters Noa escapes, during his lunch break, in to the literature of Dickens, Trollope and Goethe and you can't help but think that this was what Lee herself had in mind as she wrote this epic novel with its multi-generational perspective. Written in third person perspective Lee weaves a rich and complex narrative around a huge number of characters all seemingly bound together by a shared destiny.

Pachinko begins in 1910 and charts the history of the Korean peninsula from Japanese Imperialism through to the Second World War and the resulting Korean diaspora who found themselves in Japan. In Lee's history its not the politicians or ruling classes that have a voice but the working and immigrant classes whose stories are authentic and deeply personal. 

Many of the strongest characters in the novel are women. Early on we meet Sunja whose relationship with Osakan trader Hansu defines the structure of the book. No doubt Sunja's life and struggles are drawn from research and oral histories and as an 'every women' the character is exceptionally well crafted. As readers we literally see inside her heart. "The people you loved, they were always there with you"; Sunja carries the lives and loses of her family around with her like precious cargo.

But for me its the men whose destiny defines this novel. Throughout the 20th Century Korean immigrants in Japan worked tirelessly to provide for their families against overt suspicion from the Japanese. Each Korean parent works hard to educate their children in order to avoid the traps they found themselves in but ultimately circumstances often lead them to the same ends, namely working in the Pachinko industry. Pachinko parlours, packed full of loud flashing gaming machines, are ubiquitous in Japanese cities large and small and occupy a loop hole in gambling laws. Though Pachinko plays a key economic role in Japan the industry is not considered a top flight profession and at times caught up in organised crime.    

Lee effectively uses Pachinko as a metaphor for the ceiling that exists amongst immigrant groups whose family names and backgrounds ultimately limit and hinder their prosperity. Even towards the end of the novel when Sunja's grand-son is fulfilling a dream of studying in the US he finds himself unable to leave behind the shadow of the yakuza. 

Packinko is a thought provoking novel that gives a voice to people so often ignored in history and literature. I was initially attracted to the book by its setting in South East Asia but it has left a far bigger impression on me, and that's down to the exceptional story telling of Min Jin Lee.  

 I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee published by Apollo, 496 pages.     

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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Last Stop Tokyo by James Buckler

"This is your second new beginning in a year. How many more will you need before you finally destroy her?"

A couple of weeks back the folks at Doubleday sent me a proof copy of James Buckler's debut novel Last Stop Tokyo which immediately made it to the top of my stack. I'm a massive fan of contemporary Japanese literature in translation so I was curious to read this novel from an English writer which is set in Japan but from the perspective of a gaijin; a non Japanese or alien.

To set the story up, Alex has moved to Tokyo to catch up with an old University friend. He's left London to escape trouble, be that professional or family were not entirely sure. In any case the bright neon lights of Shinjuku and the maze of bars in the Golden Gai seems like the perfect place to hit the reset button on life. The trouble is that no sooner does Alex land at Narita Airport and he's drawn into a complex net of crime in the Tokyo underworld.

Last Stop Tokyo is a well paced thriller that careers around the Tokyo area like a tour bus through an alternative side of the city. From bath houses and dingy bars to back street ramen shops this is more the Tokyo of Murakami's After Dark than the shiny corporate landscape of Shibuya or quirky extravagance of Harujuku. Buckler's Japan is more edgy and dark which works as a metaphor for the experience of a gaijin being, at least at first,  lost in an almost impenetrable world of excitement and risk.

Supporting characters, such as seductive yet curious Naoko, are well observed and clearly written from extensive experience of Japanese culture. The yakuza (organised crime groups) are sometimes a cliche in fiction but Buckler navigates around all the traps to deliver a believably frightening backdrop.

As I raced through the chapters I was waiting for the part where my disbelief was shattered by an implausible plot twist or a hackneyed expression but Buckler just keeps on delivering. Alex is sometimes naive but that's what makes him so easy to empathise with; I'm a sucker for a character looking to make a fresh start even though its a well worn literary trope.

For me, Last Stop Tokyo is a brilliant debut thriller from a writer with a distinct voice and a well honed instinct for a solid story. I'm looking forward to reading more from James Buckler.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

Last Stop Tokyo by James Buckler published by Doubleday, 288 pages.     

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Sunday, 13 August 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

"I can't help it when people are frightened, says Merricat, I always want to frighten them more"

This week I picked up a novel recommended to me by my booky friend in Pret a Manger who always eager asks me what I'm reading as she makes my morning coffee. "I've got a recommendation for you!" she surprised me one day before showing me a screen shot of the cover of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle with quotes from both Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman.  Needless to say I walked out with my white filter and a promise I'd made to read my first Shirley Jackson.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson's final novel published shortly after her death in 1962. Its a slim book with a curiously gothic title for a mid-century American novel but then Jackson was a slim and curiously gothic writer herself. Her mysterious and chilling novels are often set in small town America; a trope that Stephen King would pick up and run with in the 1970s.

The story concerns Merricat who lives with her elder sister Constance and sick Uncle Julian in a large house, with grounds, on the edge of a village. Constance hasn't left the house since an incident some 6 years earlier that left the family isolated and introverted. With Uncle Julian housebound it is Merricat who must make lone visits to the village for supplies.

Merricat is a curiosity for the villagers who view her with a huge dose of suspicion. We learn that the incident in the house some years ago left half of the family dead from arsenic poisoning leaving the remaining family members in a deep state of shock, until Merricat's cousin arrives on the scene.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a shocking slice of mid-century domestic horror from a brilliant writer whose sparing prose is packed full of symbolism and metaphor. The haunted house story has been imagined in many different forms but Jackson captures a totally unique suspense here as the US comes to terms with the aftermath of the Second World War and the fear and suspicion that arose during the Cold War.

Although the novel was popular in the sixties I would argue that we've yet to really give Shirley Jackson the critical praise and analysis her body of work deserves. With the BFI about to launch their Stephen King season we should look back to writers like Shirley Jackson whose work was a clear inspiration for Mr King himself.

A film adaptation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is currently in production and scheduled for a potential release later this year which might just shine a brighter light on Shirley Jackson.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson published by Penguin Classics, 176 pages.     

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Monday, 7 August 2017

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams


Readers of this blog will know that I recently set myself the challenge of reading some of the books that I was, almost, ashamed not to have read before. You know the sort of novels; the ones that come up in conversations when you mention you write a book blog or the books that come up in pub quiz tie-breaks where you are expected to know the answer.

Honestly I was afraid of being caught out, scared of being revealed as a fraud, so I set out to fill in the gaps in my library rather than blunder on as a blagger. First up was Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale followed by Philip Roth's American Pastoral and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The truth is that the experience of picking up a much anticipated novel is always kind of flawed. For me, its the discovery of a new book that delivers the thrill but that same thrill is lost when you read a book that you feel like you've already read anyway. Take The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; there's no doubt that this is a good read but the trouble is that the story has taken on a life of its own in popular culture to the extent that either through film, TV, music videos or other books from the post Hitchhiker genre you've already 'read' the novel it seems.

Likewise the thrill of 'discovering' Philip Roth's Indignation at Newark airport was far more momentous that reading the 'seminal' American Pastoral. Of course, I love Roth's writing for his epic sweeping narratives and characters that literally breath life into the prose. American Pastoral is like an America History lesson in 450 or so pages; to Roth's supreme credit he makes the historical commentary resonate through iconic characters like The Swede. Yes, this novel is fully deserving of its 'modern American classic' moniker.

So, am I a better person for having read two classics missing from my library; am I a more credible book blogger for filling in the literary gaps? Probably not, I'm glad I've read American Pastoral in particular but going forward I won't shy away from the books I haven't read and I'll continue to dig out the lesser known on my own voyage of bookish discovery!!

I read these novels mostly on a short break in Valencia. Check out my bookish photo tour here.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams published by Pan, 133 pages.    

American Pastoral by Philip Roth published by Vintage, 436 pages.    

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Other Twin by L V Hay

"I don't ask where we're going. I don't need to"

This week I picked up the debut novel by L V Hay, The Other Twin. Thanks to Karen and the team at Orenda for the review copy. Orenda have already built up quite a reputation for publishing new and exciting work from great crime writers, can L V Hay continue the success??

The novel is fast paced from the off. Tightly written chapters and neat sections, "Part Two, Present Continuous", drive the narrative forward capturing the shock of 'that phone call' perfectly. The call in question is the one you never want to receive, in this case Poppy is called by her mother with the news that her sister India is dead. L V Hay's writing literally has you catching your breath as you, with Poppy, digest the news.

India's death is initially reported as suicide but Poppy is unconvinced and so begins an off and online investigation into India's life through her friends and through her online blog. The novel is bang up date with its themes around digital personas, avatars and the grey area between on and offline. How well do we really know our siblings?

The Other Twin has it all; sex, secrets and social media all set in a claustrophobic version of Brighton that oozes intrigue and suspense. L V Hay takes us on the journey confidently and eloquently, particularly as the novel careers perilously towards its climax - not one to forget.

Despite a couple of slightly hackneyed descriptions; late night burger joints at Victoria and some of the characters on the gay scene in Brighton, this is an accomplished psychological thriller with an original and highly memorable ending.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Other Twin by L V Hay published by Orenda Books, 300 pages.     

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