Monday, 11 December 2017

"The human mind is fragile and it can tear at any time"

Early on in Pajtim Statovci's highly original debut novel his protagonist Bekim meets a handsome, charismatic and talkative cat in a gay bar. Bekim observes the cat loping "contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth balanced social life". For a young man like Bekim who lives alone, with only a boa constrictor for company, the socially confident and handsome Cat is alluring and promptly invited to move in.

Just as you're about to reside this story to a whimsical tale about a lonely and confused man Statovci introduces increasingly personal layers to the narrative that expose some profound truths about Bekim, a man like Statovci, who finds himself living in Finland as an outsider having, along with his family, fled his home in Kosovo as a child.

Structurally the story flips between Bekim's narrative and that of his mother some twenty years before at home in Kosovo marrying and starting a family. Initimate family portrayals of life in the Balkans are rare in English language fiction and Statovci fills the gap expertly. As tensions rise in the region and the family look to begin a life elsewhere we feel every desperate heart beat that drives their ambition. A life in Finland must be brighter than the fear of conflict the family escape from.

Finland through the eyes of Bekim and his siblings is hostile and cold. Bekim does everything he can to find the "freedom to do everything differently" from his own parents but escaping the label of 'immigrant' proves impossible. The very worst racism and xenophobia is brilliantly articulated by the Cat who turns against Bakim in spite of the accommodation and food he provides.

Bekim's relationship with his domineering father is tense and intolerable. Fear and violence are always lurking round the corner "like a beast bound up in a straight jacket" yet even when Bekim rents an apartment of his own he allows a pet boa constrictor to live beneath the sofa, addicted somehow to threat and victimisation.

My Cat Yugoslavia is complex and unnerving. Hats of to David Hackston for his translation, particularly the anthropomorphic aspects, to English from Finnish. This is literary fiction that asks more questions that it answers but what is does achieve is a startling window in to the immigrant experience that is profound and deeply moving.

Themes of isolationism and talking cats sounds Murakami-esque but this is far from homage. For me, Statovci's talking cat is a well crafted means to expose both Bekim's isolation from the society around him and the same society's very darkest response to immigration.

My Cat Yugoslavia is beautifully written, immensely original and a highly commendable piece of literary fiction. I just hope David Hackston can keep translating Statovci's work for the English speaking audience.   

I read this novel at home in snowy Oxfordshire

My Cat Yugoslavia by Patjim Statovci translated by David Hackston published by Pushkin Press, 272 pages.     

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Thursday, 30 November 2017

"It seems to have been cold all the time in Blönduós, just constant cold, storms, snowfalls, blizzards and all sorts"

Its my turn on the White Out blogtour and I couldn't be happier! Like Jónasson's hero Ari Thór
I've fallen under the spell of the Dark Iceland series and of the remote and wild landscapes around Siglufjördur. Will White Out live up to the standard of the Icelandic crime fiction defining series so far?

Jónasson has a well honed talent for matching tense and troubled characters against a claustrophobic and often isolated setting and with White Out we're thrown right back into familiar ground. Thór is sent to investigate the apparent suicide of a young woman beneath the cliffs of a deserted village on the desperately remote North Icelandic coast; "the edge of the habitable world". The snow falls relentlessly as Thór meets the few inhabitants of this rocky out crop and soon discovers that the death mirrors that of the victim's mother and younger sister some 25 years earlier.  Jónasson expertly shifts the narrative from an Agatha Christie style 'whodunit' to a well paced psychological crime thriller about family secrets and hidden social truths.

As a slice of Nordic Noir White Out delivers in spades. The use of the lighthouse at Kalfsharmarvik is a well conceived motif which, like in Jules Verne's The Lighthouse at the end of the World, adds to the drama of a crime committed in a liminial space between the sea and the land. In one interview Ari's boss Thomas questions an inhabitant, Reynir,  about the 'call of the sea'. Reynir pauses before admitting "it brings a certain freedom with it". 

But its not just the settings that get darker in Jónasson's novels. Ari Thór himself continues to brood throughout White Out, the 'midwinter gloom...bringing shadows into his thoughts'.  This time however, we see Ari coming to terms with the idea of fatherhood. As a former theology student investigating violent crime on Europe's most Northerly edge is is hardly surprising that Thór falls for self reflective melancholy but that's to his credit, don't we want out literary protagonists to be flawed?

White Out is a great read, once again Ragnar Jónasson delivers a chilly and mysterious novel to remind us that Winter in Britain is not quite as cold and dark as we think.

I read this novel at home in cosy and warm Oxfordshire

White Out by Ragnar Jónasson translated by Quentin Bates published by Orenda Books, 276 pages.     

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Monday, 27 November 2017

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

"I was nonetheless convinced that our Earth is enormous - otherwise the sky wouldn't be so large"

Memoirs of a Polar Bear has a completely unique premise. I really can't think of another novel written from the multi-generational perspective of a family of polar bears. But what's even more unique is the way Yoko Tawada uses this premise to create an allegory about life in Russia and later in East Germany during the Cold War.

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author living in Berlin and writing in both Japanese and German.  The English translation is by Susan Bernofsky who manages not only the translation but the tricky job of making English readers believe the anthropomorphism with great success. 

The novel is split into three sections beginning in Russia with a polar bear who has spent a life working as a performer in a zoo. She reflects upon on her life on stage and upon the changing role of the circus in Russia during her lifetime. The pay off for accepting that a polar bear would pick up a pen and write her memoirs is that you get to experience the World from a wonderfully non human perspective  Part two concerns her daughter Tosca who is training as a performer at a Berlin zoo and part three picks up the story of her son Knut in Canada who finds the memoir of his grandmother from her time in Russia.

At times the novel reminded me of The Life in Pi; the way the bears speak with humans, to the extent that you actually forget they aren't human, was similar to Yann Martell's style. At other times I though of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder in the way that Tawada manages to write convincingly about vast topics, like socialism in the GDR, through the eyes of a unlikely narrator.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a great story so long as you are willing to accept the allegory and take the leap of faith required to go on this journey with Yoko Tawada. My advice, go with it. You'll be very glad you did. 

I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada published by Portobello Books, 256 pages.     

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Monday, 20 November 2017

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

"An artist's concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it"

Inspired by the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year I decided to fill in a couple of gaps by reading some of his early work. I reviewed The Buried Giant on this blog a couple of years ago and vividly remember the first time I read Never Let Me Go. I also have less vivid memories of studying the Merchant/Ivory film adaptation of Remains of the Day at University. You could say I'm a fan. Anyhow I picked up a copy last week of the beautifully reissued 30th Anniversary edition of Ishiguro's 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1986 and went on to win other awards and acclaim that year. In many it was An Artist of the Floating World which established Ishiguro as one of Britain's most important contemporary writers.

The book is set in post World War II Japan and tells the story of Masuji Ono, an ageing artist, who looks back on his life and career through conversations with his family, friends and old students. Ishiguro's own Japanese family perspective provides a unique viewpoint from which to explore Japan itself at this profound crossroads in its rich history.

On the one hand this is a story about an artist; the prose is painterly, elegant and vividly captures the colours of Japan in the late 1940 and 1950's. The floating world in the title refers to a pre-war pleasure  district of bars and geisha that represents a ephemeral and seemingly lost Japan; "The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world".

On the other hand this is a story about Japan coming to terms with the societal and cultural impact of World War II. Ono laments not only the demise of his career, as artist and provocateur, but also of his position in a society which seems no longer to revere its elders. Post war Japan is presented by Ishiguro as a place of contrast where society looks both forward to the modernity of the USA but in equal measure backwards to an ancient Japan from which to weave together a new country.

This is a smart and evocative read from one of our finest writers of literary fiction (and worthy winner of the Nobel Prize).   

I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber and Faber, 239 pages.     

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Monday, 13 November 2017

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

"But this was pure choice, it had the beauty of action, unlike the long compromise of being acted upon"

Beginning a new novel by Alan Hollinghurst comes with a certain set of expectations. We know from The Line of Beauty that Hollinghurst writes eloquently from the perspectives of gay men yet we've also seen in The Stranger's Child that his sparkling prose is so beautiful it fully deserves its place on the shelves marked 'literary fiction' rather than 'gay fiction'. So it is with a mixture of excitement and assuredness that I picked up a copy of new novel The Sparsholt Affair last week and dived in immediately. 

From chapter one we're in familiar territory. The story begins in the quadrangles of Oxford's colleges during the 1940s with a memoir from novelist Freddie Green that captures the impact of the war on the closeted collegiate world. Freddie and his cohorts; artist Peter Coyle and writer Evert Dax, are less interested in the nightly risk of bombing as they are in the arrival of handsome and enigmatic new boy David Sparsholt. Sparsholt's athletic physique, Midlands accent and lively girlfriend set him apart from the bohemian ideals of the others yet he becomes the centre of their world nonetheless. 

This section of the novel would have made a tightly written and sophisticated novella (Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene would approve) but instead the novel switches gear and moves forward some thirty odd years to focus on Sparsholt's son Johnny who is trying to forge a career as an artist in 1970s London. The main point of this section seems to be to compare the life of gay men before and after the landmark 1967 legalisation of homosexuality and it works to a point. The problem is that as readers we're left wanting more from the wartime part of the novel.

As the book moves from the Seventies right through to the new Millennium we learn more about the 'Sparsholt Affair' itself but not nearly enough. Yes there are some really interesting observations, off the back of 'The Affair', about the realities of being a older gay man in the new Millennium but for me, these almost belong in a different book.

The Sparsholt Affair is a stylish and sophisticated novel set in a  middle class world of art dealers and academics. The prose is sparkling and elegant and the narrative moves forward at pace across the sixty or so years the story covers. For me, the only concern is that that The Sparsholt Affair simply tries to do too much.
I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst published by Picador, 461 pages.     

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Sunday, 5 November 2017

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1 by Philip Pullman

"There were things in the water that had been disturbed, and things in the sky too...."

I spent most of last week lugging around my new copy of La Belle Sauvage so as not to miss any opportunity to read a few more pages. Wherever I went the weighty tome came along like my own sturdy hard backed daemon. So addictive is the spell that Philip Pullman casts in anything that he writes that for me, at least, its hard to concentrate on anything else!

La Belle Sauvage is the first of a new trilogy of books that serve as an 'equal' to Pullman's classic chronicles 'His Dark Materials'. The story sets out to explain how his heroine Lyra ended up living inside Jericho College, Oxford, at the beginning of Northern Lights but at the same time La Belle Sauvage is an epic fantasy story in its own right.

Philip Pullman is an expert in the fairy tale genre having retold the classics himself in Grimm's Tales. La Belle Sauvage delivers all the classic fairy-tale tropes, and much more, in a piece of writing that blends Hans Christian Andersen with Tolkien. Anyone familiar with Vladimir Propp's Analysis of Functions in Folktales will immediately recognise the 'Donor' and the 'Magical Agent'. Pullman builds on the classic folktale structure to create a vivid new world.

The hero of La Belle Sauvage is plucky adventurer Malcolm an 11 year old boy who just wants to do the right thing whether by his parents at The Trout, the pub they run by the river Thames or the nuns in the priory where he helps with errands. Malcolm is an every-boy who readers can easily identify with; his curiosity, his tenacity and his willingness to trust is what drives the narrative forward.

La Belle Sauvage begins with a fair amount of scene setting but then becomes a tale about a journey after an unprecedented flood leads Malcolm and his friend Alice to set off aboard La Belle Sauvage to carry baby Lyra to safety. Pullman pulls of a classic villain in Bonneville a genuinely frightening and violent man with a fierce three legged Hyena daemon who relentlessly pursues Malcolm and Alice.  Like the brothers Grimm and HC Andersen, Pullman is never afraid to depict real fear and pain.

The pace builds throughout the novel as the chase tightens and the flood waters rise and its right here that Pullman introduces mythical creatures and witches taken from ancient folklore and weaved beautifully into an idiosyncratic version of England. At times I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguru's The Buried Giant in the depiction of an England in which giants roam against an ancient landscape. 

La Belle Sauvage is a cracking read and now that I've finished I miss my sturdy hard backed daemon by my side. Not long to wait until Volume 2.

I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire (where better to read Philip Pullman?)

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1 by Philip Pullman published by Penguin, 560 pages.     

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Friday, 3 November 2017

The Nix by Nathan Hill

"Sometimes we're so wrapped up in our own story that we don't see how we're supporting characters in someone else's"

One of my absolutely favourite tasks is curating a reading list for a few days in the sun. There is, after  all, an art to achieving the right blend of titles to set your stack apart besides the pool. 

One vital component for the holiday stack is the longer novel; the story you can immerse yourself in fully from your sun bed making use of the well earned extra time a holiday affords. For my week in the sun I chose Nathan Hill's 600+ page debut The Nix which is now available in paperback.

For a debut Hill has created an incredibly dense and rich story with multiple perspectives which spans over a big chunk of the 20th Century from Norway to Chicago. This confidence was applauded by critics on the book's release who even claimed that The Nix would enter the canon of 'The Great American Novel' - high praise indeed.

The novel concerns Samuel Andreson-Anderson an acedemic and, somewhat failing, writer under pressure from his publisher to deliver his second novel. Out of the blue inspiration arrives when Samuel's estranged mother appears on the news having thrown grit, in protest, at a right wing Republican candidate. The case grips the nation and when the Media demands to know more about his mother, Faye,  Samuel takes matters in to his own hands and determines to understand her motives and more importantly why she abandoned him as an 11 year old boy.

The narrative flips between Samuel's investigation and the memories of his childhood. As his mother opens up we learn from her perspective what motivated her protest as the narrative takes us back to the 1968 student uprisings of the sixties. These sections are well researched and brought as vividly to life as oral history.

Alongside this Hill introduces a number of secondary characters including his childhood friend Bishop and his more recent friend Pwnage a fellow gaming addict in the virtual world of Elfscape. Personally I could have done without this particular side plot. There is a lot of story here and at times the pace needed some speed but at other times, particularly when writing about Samuel's childhood, Hill delivers beautifully sensitive storytelling reminiscent of Donna Tartt. 

The Nix itself is a reference to old Norse mythology and folktales told through the generations. Tales of The Nix have been passed down from Samuel's grandfather in Norway and it is these stories which ultimately draw Faye back to Europe to discover her own childhood story. If The Nix is to be considered one of the great American novels then its due to Hill's ability to articulate a truly American story through the eyes of their non American forebears.

So did Hill take on too much with The Nix? Possibly, though his writing style is accessible and clear for me there is an editing job to be done.  Had I been reading this is in my normal 20 to 30 mins sittings, rather than in hours spent on the sun-bed, I may've struggled more.

I read this novel by the pool in Lanzarote.

The Nix by Nathan Hill published by Picador, 640 pages.     

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3 of the best: Dystopian fiction

3 of the best: Dystopian fiction


Highrise by J.G. Ballard

A great read with an unforgettable first opening sentence that will hook you in whether browsing in the library/bookshop or trying a kindle sample. Your perfect hit of post-apocalyptic mayhem.

208 pages, published by Liveright

Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World 
by Haruki Murakami

Set in a near future Tokyo this Murakami classic blends cyber-punk with science fiction yet refuses to conform to either genre. Pure Neo-Noir Japanese style.

416 pages, published by Vintage

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

This is Atwood at her most zany. Expect sexual fantasies, organ harvesting, sex-bots and Elvis impersonators all convincing served up with a domestic tale about a couple just trying to get on in life.

322 pages, published by Virago

Read the full reviews on the blog - use the search box to find your next read

Monday, 23 October 2017

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

"Summer's end they were sinewy and brown, and took up a little more space. Summer's end the were inseparable"

In the opening chapter of Sarah Winman's new novel Tin Man we meet Dora who determinedly defies her husband by displaying a print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, that she won in a raffle, on the kitchen wall. Dora's print is a window to another world, another life beyond the drab 1950s kitchen wall in their house in the shadow of the Cowley motor works on the outskirts of Oxford. Though the story that follows is her son Ellis's, in many ways Tin Man is defined by the hopes and unfulfilled dreams of his mother Dora.  

Tin Man is a love story in two parts, each told from the different perspectives of the two main characters Ellis and Michael. Ellis's story tells of lost love and unrealised creative potential whilst Michael's fills in the gaps and explores their relationship over the years in more detail. The stories intertwine and overlap, at times the pair become a trio when Ellis marries his girlfriend Annie but at others they are separated and absent from each other's lives.

The most powerful part of the novel for me concerns the time the pair spend, like Van Gogh himself, in the South of France with the sun on their backs and the sounds of Francois Hardy in their ears. Seeds were planted early in the novel on the banks of the Thames at home in Oxford that come to bloom under the yellow sun of Provence, its a beautifully written sequence. "We'll be OK, I remember thinking. Whatever we are, we'll be OK".

Though the novel is short the narrative arc moves right through to the 1980s with Michael facing the loss of those around him in the height of the AIDS crisis, Winman writes with such empathy that you feel these characters implicitly. The emotional intensity created in such a bite sized novel reminded me of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. Though sad in parts the story is deeply touching and authentic.

I read this novel in two sittings over the bank holiday weekend.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman published by Tinder Press, 208 pages.     

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Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

"Nearly all my dreams are set in landscapes I moved away from long ago, as if I had left something behind there that was never concluded"

Autumn is the first of four seasonal books making up an encyclopaedia, of sorts, that Knausgaard has written in order to make sense of the World for his unborn daughter. In places the book takes the form of letters directly to his daughter whilst in others the book comprises short musings on topics as varied as Vomit, The Migration of Birds and Oil Tankers.

Although this project is about the big things that Knausgaard wants to prepare his daughter for its also a fascinating glimpse into the way he himself sees the World. Knausgaard has bared his soul already in the deeply personal My Struggle series in which he blends memoir and literature in a way that feels authentic and visceral. In Autumn, he's essentially continuing the theme presenting little nuggets of insight into his life and into Norwegian culture.

Some of the chapters deal with the everyday like oil tankers and plastic bags but even with the most mundane of subjects Knausgaard's writing is lyrical and never prosaic; "The plastic bag has something inviolable about it, it seems to exist in a place beyond everything else, including time and its inexorable modality".

Autumn is a book for readers familiar with Knausgaard's style and character. Without having read at least part of the My Stuggle series you might possibly be left wondering what all the fuss is about (a totally Knausgaardian sentiment). Yes the chapters in Autumn lack a narrative or an a over-arching theme but the prose remains consistently original; "Nearly all my dreams are set in landscapes I moved away from long ago, as if I had left something behind there that was never concluded.

Hats off to Karl Ove Knausgaard for attempting such as bold endeavour as to curate his own encyclopaedia! 

I read this novel on Kindle on the Tube between meetings.

Autumn by Karl One Knausgaard published by Vintage, 188 pages.     

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen blog tour

"If you had only a day left, what would you do? And what if you had a week? A month"

Antti Tuomainen has an instinct for compelling story even in the case of his newest book in English The Man Who Died which, on the face of it, is a detour from his usual chilling Finnish crime thrillers.  Thank you Orenda Books for the review copy and for having me on the launch blog tour.

The Man Who Died begins with a unique premise. Successful mushroom farmer and business man Jaakko Kaunismaa is told by his doctor that he is terminally ill. Jaakko, it seems, is dying slowly from long term exposure to deadly poisonous toxins. So begins a journey on which he must come to terms with his own imminent mortality at the same time as investigating who it is who wants him dead. With his business cultivating specialist, and highly prized, mushrooms for the Japanese market could there be industrial espionage at play? Or should Jaakko look closer to home, in The Man Who Died anything can happen.

Jaakko's attitude to his terminal illness is really interesting; rather than wallowing in self pity he writes of list of all the things he wants to do with his time left on Earth; "The good thing about death is that as it draws closer many things I used to think were important lost their significance". This 'To Do List' provides the resilience he needs to tackle the issues thrown his way as he starts to investigate more into his business, his wife and his suppliers. Thanks to Jaakko I now know a lot more about the Finnish mushroom industry!

But that's not all. Through Tuomainen's writing I know a whole lot more about Finland itself. To call The Man Who Died a black comedy probably doesn't go far enough to explain quite how surreally funny this book is. The scene in which Jakkoo fights a man to the death in a sauna is a uniquely Finnish blend of humour and gore. With much of the Nordic Noir genre being light on laughs The Man Who Died provides some light relief.

Crime and mystery fans will enjoy this novel but for me its the insight into Antti Tuomainen's Finland which is most rewarding. In short this is delightfully genre blending caper about a man with only months left to live. "Death felt at its most unreal in the mornings", Jaakko muses in typical irreverent style before simply getting on with his day with new found urgency. You have to admire a man with a 'To Do List'.

I read this novel in paperback mostly over a weekend at home in Oxfordshire. 

The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston)published by Orenda Books, 300 pages.     

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