Monday, 22 October 2018

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman (Paperback)

A clever novella that Challenges age and gender stereotypes


Along with ubiquitous vending machines, brightly lit convenience stores are a staple of Japanese urban landscapes. From snacks and drinks to umbrellas and crisp white shirts the likes of Hudson, Family Mart and 7 Eleven are always on hand to get you through the working day or to get you out of a fix.

Despite their functional esteem, working in a convenience store is not regarded as a viable or aspirational career. Consequently, employees are a transient bunch with a tenure of months rather than years. Convenience Store Woman is about an employee, Keiko, who bucks the trend by devoting years in service to her community. But is Keiko's loyal servitude masking something about her own life?

The key theme in the novel is around the value placed on service roles in Japan versus white collar career positions. Even her own family urge her to get a 'proper' job suggesting that she has needed therapy since a childhood incident that that left a black mark by her name.

Keiko wonders what life would be life if she does conform to the lifestyle expected of her. In an attempt to take control of her own life Keiko begins a relationship with Shiraha, a fellow convenience store worker, whom she agrees to live with but ultimately she struggles to resist the role of servitude that she is so proud to hold. At one point, having given up work, she finds herself rearranging products on the shelves to improve their appeal.

In Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata successfully flips the status on the ever-present sound of "Irasshaimase" which is what, in fact, keeps mega-cities like Tokyo working. This a clever novella that challenges gender and age stereotypes whilst shining a light on a society coming to terms with its own problems with over-work.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori published by Portobello Books, 176 pages

Monday, 15 October 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso



Read in one sitting but remember for much longer

Nick Drnaso made history this year when his novel Sabrina was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. As the first graphic novel to make the long-list Drnaso has broken the Man Booker mould in a work that pushes boundaries in storytelling and in style.

The story begins in Chicago with a young girl, Sabrina, cat sitting for a friend and chatting to her sister. The tone is suburban and quotidian with little indication of what's to come. Next we meet Teddy who arrives in Colorado to stay with his friend, Airman Calvin, whilst he recovers from a break up.

The pages that follow meticulously present a troubling story about a missing girl and the conspiracy theories that circulate virally online as the story breaks in the media. At all times the narrative is executed beautifully in the simple lines of Drnaso's illustrations that are beautifully expressive.
  
The medium allows for the awkward silences between Teddy and Calvin to really resonate. There are frames without any dialogue that linger with profound realism. Likewise the muted colour palette or pale pinks and beige effortlessly conveys the banality of strip-light life in Colorado.

Sabrina is a novel for 2018; with its themes of social media and 24hr news cycles Drnaso knows how to use existing social tension to tell a story. But its the theme of trust, and specifically who to trust. that makes this novel a story of our times.  

Drnaso is a huge talent that I suspect has a bucket full of stories in his head

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso published by Drawn and Quarterly, 204 pages

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen



Pink flamingos in the Winter

A few chapters in to the latest Antti Tuomainen and you'll be forgiven for thinking you'd lost the plot. Palm Beach Finland concerns a visionary (read crazy) property developer attempting to recreate Palm Beach in chilly Finland. But that's not all, this dreamland then becomes central to a murder investigation. Jan Nymen is sent from the covert National Central Police to investigate amongst the plastic palm trees and rubber rings at the 'hottest beach in Finland'.

Palm Beach Finland is everything you'd expect from the writer of last year's The Man Who Died (2017), with Tuomaimen you get crime and caper all wrapped up in a decidedly Finnish packet. In this case a murder mystery novel with black humour as witty as pink flamingos in the winter.

Tuomainen has a distinctive style which David Hackston must work really hard to adapt into English, hats off to him. At times the surreal humour gets in the way of the narrative which is more driven by the unique setting that any any of the characters.That said Palm Beach Finland is a fun read for crime fiction fans looking for something to brighten their Autumn stacks.

For Tuomainen at his darkest try a different piece of Finnish Noir with The Mine (2015) but for now at least the bright cover art of Palm Beach Finland will cheer up your bedside table this October

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen published by Orenda, 300 pages

Friday, 5 October 2018

The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada


So much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella

Toshiki Okada's The End of the Moment we Had is a straight forward novella about two people who meet and experience a short lived yet hyper-intense relationship. But in this novella the narrative is only part of the experience as Okada's writing style, which combines elements from both fiction and theatre, steals the show. 

At the beginning of the novel we meet a group of six guys heading for a night out in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. They brag and banter with each other as they make their way into club but at a certain point the narrative locks onto one of the men in particular as he watches a performance in the club and then meets a girl.

Just when we're settled onto a single narrator Okada switches again though this time its to the girl. As the pair leave the club Okada establishes that this is a story about one couple amidst the teeming population of Tokyo.  

As news breaks of the US led air-strikes on Baghdad and the streets of Tokyo hum to the crowds of anti-war protests the couple retreat to a love hotel which becomes a home for their relationship to play out. Once the door to their room is closed they forget the world outside as the love hotel becomes a simulacrum for a world distilled down only to sex and conversation.

Just as the love hotel is an idiosyncratic Japanese concept so to is Okada's style of writing which covers so much story and so much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella.  Another brilliant slice of Japanese fiction brought to the UK by Pushkin Press.   

The End of The Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir


Fiction that makes you late for work

Trap takes us right back to the action at the end of Lilja Sigurdottir's English language debut Snare only this time the noose is even tighter.

The novel begins with Sonia and her son Thomas in hiding in Florida. The pair must move from town to town so as not to leave any trace that her ex Adam might be able to track. Spending time with Thomas is wonderful but Sonia can feel the threat looming every day.  

Back in Iceland Agla tries to come to terms with the end of her relationship with Sonia whilst picking up the pieces of her shattered career following the banking collapse in which she played a major part.

As the story develops Sonia is inevitably drawn back into the trap that this time sees her carrying cocaine into Iceland via Greenland. As with Snare, the chapters are extremely short creating a fierce pace that makes the heart pound. This is fiction that makes you late for work. 

Sigardardottir writes escapist crime fiction that viscerally sets the heart and mind racing as you vicariously experience tension at the extremes of the human condition. Even characters in the novel read Nordic crime fiction before they go to sleep, is there any let up?

Characters are developed in this second installment, most notable Braggi who continues to cooperate with Sonja in order to raise funds to support his terminally ill wife

In Sonia, Lilja Sigurdardottir has created a contemporary LGBT hero who approaches life with the energy and nous to overcome any of the challenges that she face. Sonia knows who she is, what she wants and who she wants around her. Is anyone likely to stop her? Think again.

Trap by Lilja Sigardottir and translated by Quentin Bates published by Orenda, 225 pages

Friday, 21 September 2018

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham


"The Mistake is coming to stay for a while"

By Nightfall was first published in 2010 after the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours. In this novel, Cunningham’s protagonist is successful 40 something New York art dealer Peter who lives a middle class metropolitan life with his wife Rebecca in an upmarket part of town. Peter’s life revolves around gallery openings and visits to wealthy clients who might just buy another piece for their ostentatious collections. But for Peter something is missing. Enter Rebecca’s younger, drug addict and Yale drop-out brother, Mizzie, "The Mistake is coming to stay for a while".


By Nightfall is, in many ways, a contemporary retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but to Michael Cunningham’s credit there is more to this novel than meets the eye. Cunningham builds on the trope of the uninvited guest to create a novel about ageing, about success and about letting go.

Just as von Aschenbach is captivated by the young Tadzio in the Lido of Venice, Peter is inexplicably drawn to Mizzie in a way that leads him to question everything in life around him. Is Peter’s affection paternalistic, an intense form of comradeship or is it something else? 

By Nightfall includes countless narrative and stylistic references to Mann’s work but Cunningham updates the idea with more grit and post millennial modernity. The novel is brilliantly structured and his New York society, more Rodin at The Met than pretzels on Broadway, is beautifully crafted. By Nightfall is a great read about the diversions that occur in life.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham published by Fourth Estate, 256 pages

Monday, 17 September 2018

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler



A bit less taming and a lot less shrew

Vinegar Girl is part of a project curated by Hogarth Press which sees modern writers retell and re-imagine some of Shakespeare's most popular work. In this case The Taming of the Shrew (1590) gets the Anne Tyler treatment in this novel which relocates the story from Padua to modern day Baltimore. 

Anne Tyler knows that audiences are more than familiar with the source material whether via Shakespeare's play itself or through myriad adaptations from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate to the Hollywood romcom 10 Things I Hate About You. So, rather than retell the story Tyler deconstructs the elements and rebuilds the narrative for a contemporary audience with a more developed view of gender politics. 

The eponymous Vinegar Girl is  Kate Battista daughter of a scientist at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. When Dr Battista needs to find a way to extend the visa for his star student research assistant, Pyotr, he conceives of a plan to have him marry his daughter. This re-imagining of the courtship into a green card  marriage is believable, credible and Tyler-esque but results in a bit less taming and a lot less shrew  

Kate is headstrong, working as a teaching assistant she is frequently in trouble for speaking too honestly to the children in her care, but her demands are for the most part accepted by Pyotr which limits the humour and tension that Shakespeare creates between Petruchio and Katerina. Gone are the polarised gender roles that so defines The Taming of the Shrew. 

Though Kate's sister Bunny does appear in the story she plays a much reduced role to Shakespeare's Bianca which is an oversight as the novel could have retold the story with much greater depth. Vinegar Girl is an enjoyable read but best considered in its own right rather than as a retelling of The Taming of The Shrew for which it falls short. 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler published by Hogarth, 272 pages

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh


A brave and ambitious novel

Sophie Mackintosh holds no punches in her debut novel The Water Cure. Having won both The White Review's short story prize and the Virago/Stylist short story competition in 2016 for her first full length novel Mackintosh tackles the theme of patriarchy head on. 

The novel takes place on a fortified though dilapidated island where a father, know as King, raises his daughters safe from the toxic masculinity of the world outside. The girls are raised with the profound belief that any contact with men could kill them.

The dystopia of the world beyond the island is highlighted by the frequent arrivals of women who wash up on the coast of the island seeking help and salvation from the water cure itself. King and his wife, the girl's mother, maintain the safe haven of the island through an extreme form of ideological protectionism that is threatened only with the arrival of three shipwrecked men.

The narrative is told through the eyes of the three girls with each taking a chapter either individually or in pairs. Mackintosh writes with a macabre tone reminiscent of Angela Carter's short stories, indeed The Water Cure itself is a short novel punctuated by chapters from different perspectives.

Though the set up is original and highly compelling, detail around how the family found themselves on the island is scarce. At times the brevity of the prose creates chasms that leave you left to fill in the gaps yourself. Whether a deliberate attempt to emphasise the lack of answers that the girls find themselves in or the result of over editing is unclear.

The Water Cure is a brave and ambitious novel that is cements Sophie Mackintosh as a major new voice in British literature.  Possibly a Man Booker winner.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh published by Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres



The awkward middle child

Louis de Bernieres has reached a particular point in his career that many writers simply never reach. Not only can he pour over enthusiastic reviews of his bestselling novels or meet spirited fans at literature festivals the world over but he can leverage his success self-referentially by including characters from his earlier work in new novels. This is both a crowd pleasing device that takes readers back to works such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) and Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village (2009) but also works to feed the narrative with a richness that can only come from a seasoned storyteller.

De Bernieres's new novel So Much Life Left Over is the second part of a trilogy that began with The Dust that Falls from Dreams (2015) and explores the years following the First World War from the perspective of one particular family. The novel begins with the death of a baby which sets off a chain of events between Ceylon and at home in England. 

At its best So Much Life Left Over is Dickensian in scale with its multi-generational narrative and attention to period detail. But at times the story is annoyingly plodding and too aware of its own de Bernieresness. Rambling letters only serve to unnecessarily slow the pace which is otherwise full of compelling and likeable characters, some of which we know very well. But here's the rub, can a novel that deliberately refers to previous works really stand on its own? 

Have we reached peak de Bernieres? So Much Life Left Over may end up being the awkward middle child of a triumvirate bookended by better works.

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres published by Vintage, 288 pages


Thursday, 30 August 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh


Daring, honest and authentic

There are moments in Man Booker nominee Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel that bring to mind some of Bret Easton Ellis's best work. 'Ambien plus Placidyl plus Theraflu. Solfoton plus Ambien plus Dimetapp'; as the unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation meticulously lists the cocktail of pills she has taken to aid her sleep the grooming regime of fellow New Yorker Patrick Bateman is brought to mind. 

Moshfegh's decision not to name her protagonist means she becomes an every-woman for post Millennial New York at the time in and around the inauguration of President George W Bush. There are hints of Eileen in the relationship with Reva who, along with Whoopi Goldberg, is one of the few constants in a life lived in between drug induced comas. This is a novel that very much responds to the self help obsession over the last couple of decades.

Characters in the novel are few but brilliantly crafted. No less in the case of therapist Dr Tuttle, 'herself a piglety shade of pink' who casually enquires 'Do you have a family history of non-binary 
paradigms?

The narrative moves quickly and builds to a dramatic and unforgettable conclusion that changes everything. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is daring, honest and authentic.

My Year or Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh published by Jonathan Cape, 289 pages

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna


A comedy fable about one man's journey into the wilderness with a hare up his jumper

The Year of the Hare begins with the moment journalist Kaarlo Vatanen finds his life knocked off course by a young hare. As his car swerves to avoid the leveret on a quiet country road Vatanen is concerned that he has injured the animal and can't help himself stopping to find out.

Like Alice's White Rabbit the hare leads Vatanen on a picaresque adventure miles away from his structured professional life. The hare asks for little other than a ready supply of fresh leaves and protection from the oven, after all hare is skinned and eaten in rural Finland,  yet he offers Vatanen a mirror with which to view his own life.

The hare is a brilliant device which Paasilinna uses to create pace and to introduce new characters that drive the narrative on through various misadventures culminating in a chase over the border into the Soviet Union. The characters the pair meet along the way each in some way challenge Vatanen's perspective of the pretence that was the life he left behind.

The cover art on this new paperback edition perfectly captures the spirit of the novel. Though originally published in 1975 the story is a fresh as a daisy. The preface explains that the translation was slightly tweaked for the 7th edition in 2006 but at heart the structure and humour of the text remains unchanged. The novel has already been translated into 18 languages and appeared on the best-seller list at home in Finland and in France where a film adaptation was also produced.

This is the only book you'll read this year about one man's journey into the wilderness with a hare up his jumper. 

The  Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna and translated by Herbert Lomas published by Peter Owen, 144 pages

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson



The nights are darker, the snow drifts deeper and the crimes more brutal

Ragnar Jonasson is a crime fiction tour de force. Whilst holding down a successful portfolio career (Jonasson works as a lawyer, a copyright lecturer and a translator) he managed to deliver Nordic Noir gold with his Dark Iceland series featuring Ari Thor. As translator of Agatha Christie's work into Icelandic he has a unique insight into the mind of a crime writer but over the past few year Jonasson has established his own distinct voice. 

The Darkness marks the first appearance in English of Jonasson's protagonist Hulda Hermannsdottir. Hulda is a retiring cop being given the final push by her unsympathetic boss who reluctantly lets her investigate one last case before she retires. At 64, Hulda is older that other crime fiction leads but she's wiser and her dreams and fears are richer than those of younger characters. The truth is, Hulda Hermannsdottir is pure crime fiction perfection and Jonasson knows just how to to write a high paced thriller around her final weeks on the force.

The Darkness finds Hermansdottir reopening a cold case concerning a young Russian asylum seeker who was found dead from a suspected suicide. Unhappy with the way the case was concluded Hermannsdottir lifts the lid on the story and finds a link to the case of another missing girl. As her investigation continues she anxiously considers her own future in retirement and her new friendship with Peter. Could he be what she needs to finally put to bed the ghosts of the past?

Jonasson takes the crime fiction tropes we recognise and administers them with a sharp injection of Icelandic chill. The nights are darker, the snow drifts deeper and the crimes more brutal.

Read The Darkness now before the follow up which is due for publication in 2019
  
The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson and translated by Victoria Cribb published by Michael Joseph, 336 pages

Friday, 3 August 2018

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada



A original fable based in a near future dystopia

Yoko Tawada's recent work Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a unique novel narrated by three generations of one polar bear family. In The Last Children of Tokyo we're in more conventional hands, from a storytelling point of view, but Tawada's unique vision is just as strong.

The two protagonists, 100 year old retired author Yoshiro and his young grandson Mumei, represent the two extremes in Tawada's Neo-Japan. With the working aged population all working in agriculture in Okinawa, Tokyo is comprised of elderly but spirited morning joggers and fragile and sick youngsters. 

"Exposure to multiple health hazards from prolonged habitation"; Tawada's vision of Tokyo is bleak. Climate change, political isolationism, disease and economic regression have left society in dysfunctional place in which the old are having to care for their ill-equipped grandchildren. This is an interesting take on the issues facing an ageing society. Whilst contemporary Japan focuses on AI solutions to care for the elderly Tawada speculates that its the young who are ultimately weak and vulnerable.

Aside from the dystopian aspects some of Tawada's city vision could prove to be prescient. Whilst cars continue to choke the streets of Shibuya today it is more and more conceivable that we'll reach 'peak car' in the not too distant future.

Tawada's satire is sharp and inescapable and could be explored over far more pages than this novella. Would be great to read a graphic novel adaptation just as the cover art suggests.

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani published by Portobello Books, 144 pages


Sunday, 29 July 2018

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna



An epic blend of biography and memoir

Room to Dream is a doorstop sized tome dedicated to the career of film maker, visual artist and auteur David Lynch. As you'd expect from the 'outsider's outsider' Room to Dream is about as far from conventional biography as can be. In Lynch's take on his own life he has writer Kristine McKenna forensically piece together the narrative based on interviews with over ninety of Lynch's family and colleagues. In between each of McKenna's chapters Lynch responds with his own take on the story at times in conflict and at other times grateful for McKenna's detail which Lynch himself fails to recall.

The result is an epic blend of biography and memoir which avoids the pitfalls of an unreliable narrator by allowing a 360 degree view of the story. 

David Lynch's career is a dazzling portfolio from the spotlight of Hollywood and the scrutiny of Cannes through to his discovery of transcendental meditation and patronage of Polish art festivals. Yet its his early years in mid-west mid-century America that offers more than a glimpse into some of the tropes that recur throughout his career from Blue Velvet through to Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive

The book explores the team of long-term collaborators who form a close-knit community around Lynch from actors Laura Dern and Kyle McCloughlin to composer Angelo Badalamenti. Though Lynch is at times distant and unfaithful his collaborators consistently speak of a tenderness, a loyalty and an understanding that is unique. 

Room to Dream is a triumph in that it pulls together a body of work from a true auteur whose work is, often times, not properly understood until years after it was originally created. Regrettably, few film makers could survive today from such a string of commercially unsuccessful films yet Lynch managed to navigate a career on the very edges of the mainstream. 

Room to Dream offers front row seats on a journey into the life of one of the most creative minds of our lifetime.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna published by Canongate Books, 592 pages



Monday, 23 July 2018

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito



What exactly did Maja do or not do?

Malin Persson Giolito's Storst av Allt won Best Swedish Crime Novel 2016, the Glass Key Award 2017 and the prestigious Prix du Polar European on 2018. Quicksand is the English version, translation duties falling to Rachel Willson-Broyles, published to much hype last year.

Persson Giolito's premise is both contemporary and prescient. Following a school shooting massacre the narrative follows teenager girl Maja who is tried in court for her involvement along with her now dead boyfriend Sebastian. If Nordic Noir traditionally lives on the rain drenched streets of Stockholm, Quicksand is more prep schools and ponies but that's not to say that Person Giolito goes soft on suspense. Maja makes an intriguing anti-hero but what exactly did she do or not do? 

The opening scenes are amongst the best in the book. The action begins with the massacre itself and a bloody school room with 5 dead bodies and one girl, Maja, still alive. Persson Giolito reveals only enough to lead into the story and holds back on the reveals until later. In contrast to most crime fiction Quicksand is Maja's story rather than that of the detective or lawyer.

With Swedish crime fiction being so perennially loved by readers across the globe Persson Giolito's approach marks a step change from the much loved format of Nordic Noir. The narrative unfolds in episodic mode with chapters that flip backwards and forwards in time. The cover artwork on the paperback looks as if the book has already been adapted for the small screen.

Persson Giolito's career as a lawyer ensures that the narrative is authentic and believable but at times becomes a little procedural. More time could have been spent in the build up to the court scenes, the parties with rich kid Sebastian for example, rather than with the prosecution itself. The problem with Quicksand is that the main character Maja is one dimensional and for the most part difficult to empathise with. The court room scenes present her as little more than a spoilt teen yet the story itself potentially has so much more to offer.

Crime fans will, no doubt, disagree. 

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles) published by Simon & Schuster UK, 416 pages



Sunday, 15 July 2018

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier



An arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out

Tracy Chevalier's latest novel New Boy is an ambitious retelling of Shakespeare's Othello with the narrative transported to a 1970's school playground. The source material Othello: The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice (1603) is one of the Bard's most frequently adapted plays; from the Orson Welles film-noir, to Rossini's opera all the way, perhaps, to Disney's Aladdin. So what can Chevalier bring to the table in this particular adaptation? 

Some of the themes in the original text (sexual tension and political posturing for example) are inevitably absent from this scholastic retelling. Instead Chevalier focuses on the universal themes of race and jealously both of which have specific potency today. Othello in New Boy is cast as 10 year old Ghanaian school boy Osei, or 'O', who moves to an all white school in 1970s Washington after his diplomat father is posted to the USA. Chevalier's Desdemona is Dee and Iago is recast as Ian.  

Although the names are similar characters in New Boy take on their own life as the story deals with being the outsider in society and about the way jealousy motivates the most extreme behaviours. In this way the playground setting is ideal as an arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out in a believable way.

In clever recognition of the genesis play, the narrative in the book is compressed into a single school day with 'acts' named 'morning recess' and 'after-school'. Less successfully, Desdemona'a pivotal handkerchief from the play is translated into Dee's strawberry covered pencil case in New Boy.

Whilst New Boy lacks some of the creativity of Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest in Hag-seed it is, nevertheless, a compelling read especially for the young adult audience. 

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier published by Vintage, 192 pages

Saturday, 7 July 2018

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


A story about survival and protecting the young

Megan Hunter's debut novel The End We Start From is a curious read somewhere between a novella and a prose poem. Though the themes are huge the narrative itself is brief in extremis - Hunter distills the text down to the bare minimum of words; even abstracting the characters names to single letters, but has she cut the story to thin?

The End We Start From follows one mother's first experience with childbirth against the backdrop of an apocalyptic flood which leads to mass evacuation from London to the North. This is a story of survival and of protecting the young which resonates with the refugee crisis that we see playing out in the news most days. The premise is interesting, the characters are well defined and some of the imagery conjured beautiful. 

But Hunter's writing style is almost like reading notes or a draft of a 'real' novel. The text appears in short staccato paragraphs that could be argued is prose poetry. The use of random creationist quotes scattered throughout the text also needs more development.

The ultimate compromise in Megan Hunter's extreme brevity is that we miss out on understanding the world that she has created. Some back story expansion would have made this a far more engaging novel that could easily have been three times as long. The End We Start From is certainly extraordinary but the idea deserves more time to grow.



The End We Start From by Megan Hunter published by Picador, 144 pages

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Like insatiable wanderlust you'll feel lost when its over

Olga Tokarczuk's Man Booker International 2018 winning novel Flights could be the most original novel you read this year. Part collection of short stories and part essay on the theme of travel psychology, Tokarczuk takes us on a life affirming examination of the role of time and place.

Tokarczuk is one of Poland's most renowned writers having already scooped the country's most highly prized accolade for Flights when first published in 2009. Translation duties into English fall to the capable hands of Jennifer Croft who elegantly manages to make sense of Tokarczuk's boundless prose.  

In Flights Tokarczuk takes us on a multi-narrative journey from a story concerning Chopin's preserved heart traveling from Paris to Warsaw, to a tourist who goes missing on a Croatian island via a former whaler who high-jacks his own ferry. Tales are disjointed and interspersed with short essays concerning the minutiae of travel yet the book as a whole hangs together in addictive symphony.

For the seasoned traveler, the committed nomad or the reluctant holiday maker Flights offers a world of discourse in which to literally immerse yourself. In the tradition of the essay novel there are parts that will resonate greater than others but, like like insatiable wander lust, you'll feel lost when its over.



Flights by Olga Tokarczuk published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 432 pages

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Monday, 18 June 2018

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday



Alice's curiosity peaks as she continues down her own rabbit hole

Lisa Halliday's debut novel Asymmetry has divided opinion; just look at the divergent commentary from The New York Times to reader reviews on Amazon. On the one hand, champions of character based literary fiction argue that the novel is an intelligent work worthy of endorsement by the late Philip Roth. On the other hand there are those readers who find Asymmetry a loosely plotted and confusing collection of three disjointed novellas. The publishers are, no doubt, relishing the conversation; isn't that the point of great fiction? 

In the first part of the novel 'Folly' a young editor in New York, named Alice, meets and falls for a celebrated older writer, Ezra Blazer. Halliday's characterisation is completely convincing, in fact much has been written about her own relationship some years ago with Philip Roth. Alice's curiosity peaks as she continues down her own rabbit hole with the older writer.

In 'Madness', the second part of the novel, we meet economist Amar who is being interviewed by immigration officers at Heathrow Airport whilst on his way to Kurdistan to see his brother. Despite the odd recurring motif there is little to connect this story with 'Folly'either contextually or stylistically, or is there?

Finally, in the third part of the novel we find a brilliantly well crafted transcript of an episode of BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs featuring Ezra Blazer himself speaking about his life through a hypothetical playlist.  

The problem with Asymmetry is that Halliday keeps us waiting right until the very end before even the merest hint that these stories are connected. Chances are that many readers will have abandoned ship before the reveal; a simple case of too little too late. Halliday is certainly an accomplished writer but the concept of Asymmetry is just too clever for its own good. Somewhere in the text there is a brilliant story about Alice and Ezra Blazer that still needs to be fully developed.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday published by Granta, 272 pages

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Monday, 4 June 2018

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda


Rich with motifs and symbols intensified by years in exile

Penguin's new reissue of Merce Rodereda's 1986 novel Death in Spring includes a beautifully crafted introduction from Colm Toibin who praises both Rodereda's prose style and her adept storytelling. Rodoreda is regarded as the most important Catalan writer of the post war period and with this reissue is destined to be discovered by a new generation of readers. 

Death in Spring is a later work when Merce Rodoreda, having spent much of her life in France and Switzerland in exile, looks back on the Catalonia of her youth. The prose is rich with motifs and symbols as if intensified to the hyper-real by her years in exile. Colours, as depicted in the cover art, are vivid and deep from the pink of the paint applied annually to houses in the villages to the crimson stains of death in the community. 

The story concerns a 14 year old boy who grows up experiencing the bizarre customs of a small Catalonian town. The most profound traditions include the ritualistic burial of the dead in tree trunks which Rodereda's protagonist experiences at first hand when his own father dies. These disturbing scenes are played out against more comforting observations as the seasons change and the flood waters rise and fall.

Death in Spring is brutal, harsh and steeped in a sense of the Catalan experience during and after the Spanish civil war.  Rodereda's acclaim is surely in part down to her ability to articulate the social reality of a life on the wrong side of the political mainstream.

Death in Spring by Merce Rodereda and translated by Martha Tennant published by Penguin, 150 pages

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Friday, 1 June 2018

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

 

Exactly why we love Nordic Noir

Gunnar Staalesen's 20th outing for private eye Varg Veum reminds us exactly why readers the World over love the Nordic Noir genre. Staalesen has been producing hard-boiled crime fiction since the Seventies and is the undisputed master of character based Nordic Noir thanks to his stories set against the relentlessly rain-drenched streets of Bergen, Norway. 

In Big Sister an older and more seasoned Veum faces a missing person investigation with a deeply personal connection. His client this time round is searching for her 19 year old god-daughter who has gone missing from her flat share with two other trainee nurses. This is usual Varg Veum territory but this time the client is his own estranged half-sister.

As Veum investigates he follows leads deep into the dark web and into a gang of extreme bikers discovering cover ups and hidden secrets at every turn. The narrative never slows with Staalesen keeping the reveals coming thick and fast. Staaleson's Veum is accessible, reliable and intuitively inquisitive.

With the police unwilling to get involved so early in the disappearance its Veum who follows his instinct rather than police procedure which makes for much more human fiction. Searching for the truth has universal appeal and Gunnar Staaleson knows exactly how to lead us towards a startling climax. Credit also to Don Bartlett for bringing the story to life in English.

If you ever find yourself in Bergen don't miss the proud memorial to her most loved PI. His unassuming statue can be found in a suitably shadowy doorway close to the fish market.

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen and translated by Don Bartlett published by Orenda Books 276 pages

Thank you Orenda for the review copy

For more from Gunnar Staalesen click here

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Friday, 25 May 2018

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick



What's missing from the film adaptation?

The film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) is so embedded in contemporary culture that the novel now includes a sub-title 'The Inspiration behind Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049'. With the 1982 film adaptation now back in the spotlight, thanks in part to Secret Cinema's current production, is there any reason to read the source novel?

Like many of the titles in Philip K. Dick's canon Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a slim novel that defies its 208 page count to create a vast and complex world packed full of questions around morality and what is is to be human. The film adaptation picks up on the key story line in which ex police detective Rick Deckard earns a living retiring rogue androids. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic megacity on the West coast of America in the near future (1992 or 2021 dependant on which issue you are reading) following a global nuclear war. It is impossible to read the novel without thinking about the genre defining art direction in the Ridley Scott film but this only makes the novel richer.

What's missing from the film are the references to pre-colonial art, music and fiction (the pulp fiction and abstract art coming from mid 20th Century Earth prior to colonialisation of nearby planets). Pris, a basic 'pleasure model replicant' and one of the androids being hunted by Deckard,  speaks of the rare science fiction novels she coverts and attempts to critique the work of Edvard Munch. Whether androids dream of Electric sheep remains a mystery but it seems they read for pleasure and have the empathy to live vicariously though others.

Writing the novel in the Sixties Philip K. Dick was fully in command of the meta-narrative he was creating. Reading today, with AI becoming an intrinsic part of daily life,  makes you realise just how prescient his writing was. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an accomplished novel is its own right and an even better companion to the film adaptations (and the immersive cinema experience currently playing in East London)      

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick published by W&N, 208 pages

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Consent by Leo Benedictus


A pacy and chilling thriller about our voyeuristic obsessions

Consent is the second novel, following Afterparty (2011), from writer and journalist Leo Benedictus. The hardback version is published with minimal cover art with the perennially inquisitive question 'read me' on the back which creates real standout in bookstores.

The novel takes some time to get into but there is a brilliant moment when you realise that this is the work of a stalker leaving notes about his methods, botched attempts and above all his motivations. As the result of a substantial inheritance from a rich Aunt he is able to fund a lifestyle of monitoring and surveillance. Inevitably this results in black humour but more often the narrative strays into the deeply creepy.

Like American Psycho (1991), Consent draws the reader in to the mind of a psychopath but unlike Bret Easton Ellis best work Benedictus also introduces a third person narrative concerning Frances, the un-named stalker's latest obsession. On the one hand we observe the stalker planning his surveillance whilst at the same time experiencing the life of the subject, Frances from an alternative perspective.

Consent is a pacy and chilling thriller about our voyeuristic obsession with other people. The narrative structure pays off in the end and is summed up perfectly by Leo Benedictus in his online commentary about boring novels; 'Why should the experience of reading a novel correspond as closely as possible to the experience of living life? You don't build a sandcastle to make it look like the beach'

Consent by Leo Benedictus published by Faber, 240 pages

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Monday, 14 May 2018

The Comforters by Muriel Spark



Defines modernity in post war fiction

The recent celebrations around the 100 year anniversary of Muriel Spark's birth have done much to shine a light on the Spark canon. As one of the most original voices to emerge from mid-century Britain Spark's work can often be overlooked beyond the career defining The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

The Comforters (1957) was Spark's first novel published to glowing reviews from contemporary giants Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene no less. Waugh's quote 'brilliantly original and fascinating' is still included in reprints today. So what is it about The Comforters that convinced Spark to take up full time writing? 

At its best The Comforters defines modernity in post-war fiction with its concern for the nature and authenticity of the 'author'. Spark's protagonist Caroline Rose is a writer who begins to hear voices, and then the tapping of a typewriter, leading her to believe that she is actually living inside a novel. Spark was interested in hallucination, having herself experienced the side affects of diet drug Dexedrine, but its the existential novel within a novel idea that really works in The Comforters and is picked up expertly in the new introduction by fellow Scot Ali Smith.

Elsewhere in the novel are themes that haven't aged quite as well. Spark's own interest in Catholicism comes through strongly in the story which will leave some readers disinterested.

All in all The Comforters is an interesting read from a writer not afraid to rip up the rule book. Perfect to read as an introduction to Muriel Spark's work before diving in to The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark published by Virago, 208 pages

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Saturday, 28 April 2018

A Natural by Ross Raisin


Profoundly realistic; more Premier Inn than Premiership

In Ross Raisin's new novel A Natural he portrays life as an outsider in the sanguine world of lower league English football. This is a life more Premier Inn than Premiership nevertheless, the monochrome backdrop plays a crucial role in the story Raisin tells about one footballer's career.

Tom Pearman is obsessed with his job; the training, the nutrition, his relationship with team mates and his profile in online fan forums. Having been let go from a top league academy he now finds himself as a big fish in a small pond but there's a problem, Tom's gay. 

The story slowly unfolds with the match day rhythm of the footfall season.  Tom is a loner and an introvert who keeps to himself in the digs he shares with team mates. When it comes to the game he takes his craft seriously, conforming to the norms required to meet the Chairman and Manager's expectations, yet all the time a new relationship is forming with the club groundsman Liam. Raisin's prose is subtly dramatic  'Desire racked him, mixing, as he looked instinctively over his shoulder, with the certainty that it would always be like this - vigilant, precious, forbidden'.

Other perspectives are provided from, Eastern an older player returning to the club to play out his career and his wife Leah, though these are distractions as the story firmly belongs to Tom and Liam. Raisin is most successful in his profoundly realistic portrayal of life living in digs, in cheap hotels and in the changing rooms of provincial football clubs, in this case the simply named 'Town'.

This is not a novel about a great romance but a story about the reality of being gay in a highly codified world of heroes and villains that simply can't except an outsider. The frustration is that Tom is as embroiled in the code as the often ignorant fans. Its this desperation that leaves a sense of loss at the end.

With Raisin's early novel God's Own Country having been adapted to the screen last year he is building a reputation for creating startlingly realistic portrayals of gay relationships that really resonate with audiences. For a similar does of realism try Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis.

A Natural by Ross Raisin published by Vintage, 352 pages

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Monday, 23 April 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley


Unforgettably poetic; a stunning debut

Elmet is the debut novel from British writer Fiona Mozley which went on to be shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Although missing out on the award to George Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo making the shortlist was a huge achievement for a new writer.

The novel is told from the perspective of Daniel, a 14 year old boy who is being raised along with is his sister Cathy in an arcadian forest haven by their father in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The title of the book references the 'last independent Celtic kingdom in England' going some way to explain the type of sylvan childhood Daniel's father wants to provide for his children away from mainstream education, removed from popular culture and hidden from the threatening eyes of neighbours.

Daniel and Cathy's world, distant and removed from other children, is brilliantly conceived by Mozely as the setting for a story about family, loyalty and coming of age. Daniel's father is a bare knuckle fighter notorious and feared throughout Yorkshire yet Mozley portrays him with a deeply protective instinct when it comes to his offspring. Though he is brutal and unforgiving his defensive nature is like that of a mother and father combined.

Mozley's writing is skillfully and unforgettably poetic in places bringing to mind the ethereal landscapes of fellow Yorkshire writers, the Brontes. In other places the florid descriptions and metaphors are overwrought and would have benefited from an edit. On balance Mozley can be forgiven for giving us such an inventive story. 

The bigger problem is with Daniel who is, in places, unconvincing as a 14 year old boy. The voice Mozley gives him airs on the effeminate with a tenderness not, perhaps, expected in a young boy. The way he processes what's happening around him belies the lack of formal education and life experience that his story suggests. 

After all is said and done Elmet is a stunning debut perfectly summed up by the Sunday Times as 'Hansel and Gretel meets the Godfather'. Fiona Mozely can write tender family drama and savage brutality like an accomplished old hand.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley published by John Murray, 320 pages



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