Sunday, 25 June 2017

"But history isn't the paper its printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stay with you"

One of the benefits of reorganising that towering stack of books beside your bed is to rediscover that 'must-read' novel that you just haven't found the time to dive into. That's exactly why, last week,  I ended up promoting The Sellout to the very top of the stack.

I first picked up a copy of Paul Beatty's novel just when it was announced as winner of the Man Booker Prize earlier last year. I remember being surprised that this American satire actually won the award (I was a huge fan of David Szalay's All That Man Is) and reading reviews afterwards it was clearly a divisive work but a number of friends convinced me it was worth a read.

The Sellout is not an easy going novel and there are a number of elements that are potentially off putting when you first dive in. Firstly the prose is pretty stream of consciousness style which means long passages of rambling and ranting with little in the way of a break. This is fine if you're following but, and here comes the second problem, much of the story hinges on the reader having a good knowledge of US politics and history as well as a healthy awareness of LA's idiosyncrasies. I'm not expert in any of this and I'm pretty sure that much of the novel's nuance was a little lost for me. That said, I'm much better for taking the leap of faith to just let Paul Beatty's prose settle and find its own meaning in my head; "Exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainstream acceptance over self-respect and morality".

The novel follows the narrator, known only as 'Me', and his attempt following the death of his father to reinstate the area in which he grew up on to the map of LA. The small town of Dickens was initially swallowed up by urban sprawl before completely disappearing from the city map. Paul Beatty uses Me's one man crusade to satirise post-racial era America; first in a newly segregated school and later when he picks up a slave.

Me's endeavour ultimately leads him to the Supreme Court which brilliantly provides Beatty with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to US society. This is powerful, no holds barred writing which is deeply shocking in parts. Beatty's bravery and willingness to tackle such raw issues through satire is clever, possibly too clever for some which is precisely why this novel has proven to be so divisive. For me, this is a novel I won't forget reading. I'm now working on a rotation system to ensure books like this don't languish at the bottom of my reading stack again.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty published by OneWorld, 306 pages.     

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

"Fear of the consequences of what I had done lay like a rock in my chest, blocking my breathing and making me gasp for air, even when I was standing still"

In a recent blog post I wrote about the idea of 'place-making' and the spirit of a town or country that can be created through fiction. Having just read Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson I was struck by the way the novel skilfully captured the essence of Keflavik, a idiosyncratic town in a relatively exposed part of Iceland. Wolves in the Dark is a similar novel in this respect.

Gunnar Staalesen is one of Norway's most prolific writers having sold over 2 million copies of his crime thrillers featuring private investigator Varg Veum. So popular is Staalesen's lead character that a life sized stature of Veum was recently unveiled in Bergen. Although there are any number of previous novels published in the series this was my first encounter with Staalesen's writing, thank you Orenda Books for the advance copy.

Wolves in the Dark begins with Varg Veum in a desperate state. Following the death of his girlfriend his life has spiralled into a dark alcohol soaked hole that he can't bring himself out of. That is at least until he is arrested after child pornography is found on his hard drive. So begins a fast paced and desperate chase to clear his name and uncover the truth about who has set him up. Old wounds are prised open as he pours over earlier cases to find clues. This is a PI with a complex history and with connections to people all over Bergen, Staaleson leverages his extensive back catalogue expertly.

As the narrative storms through the streets of Bergen we are taken on a whirlwind tour from the Hanseatic wooden houses of Bryggen to functional civic buildings from the 1970s with forensic detail. No detail is left out by Stallenson who casts his lead character against an iconic literary version of Bergen that will resonate with any fan of Scandi-noir.

Wolves in the Dark is a great genre piece that no crime writing fan should miss!

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalensen published by Orenda, 240 pages.     

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Sunday, 4 June 2017

"We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of the print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories"

I've read (and reviewed) a fair few of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years, most recently Hagseed a reimagining of The Tempest and the near future tale The Heart Goes Last but as for Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale our paths just hadn't crossed.

That was, of course, until the media hype surrounding the TV adaptation began invading my social feeds. As news spread of the imminent series from the office to the pub I was asked numerous times what the story was about; "you've obviously read the book?" I kept hearing. It would have been easy to lie but the fact is I have gaping holes in my library, so I asked myself  - isn't it time I started to fix them?

So first up I was determined to make good on my Atwood shaped omission and picked up a copy of The Handmaid's Tale just as it hit the bestsellers list not for the first time since its original release back in 1985.

Atwood has a distinct talent for creating near future worlds and communities through which to challenge humanity today with great storytelling. The Handmaid's Tale is daring and ambitious in its setting of a totalitarian New England society governed by radical extremists managing a fertility crisis.  It is these very themes that are resonating even more in the new millennia; "a rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze".  But that is not to suggest that this is in any way a thesis or academic essay, The Handmaid's Tale is a story about a group of women, and one in particular, who are brave enough to survive and overcome physical adversity and brutality.

Much has been written about Atwood's as a feminist writer but for me that it is reduce the work unnecessarily to a particular sub-genre. For me The Handmaid's Tale is a gripping piece of science fiction with a profound social message throughout. In flashbacks we learn of life before the revolution with typical Atwood poignancy; "We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were so happy".

What is so interesting is the hype surrounding the adaptation. Having now read the book and begun to watch the series what strikes me is the need to hold and covet the book as you watch the TV show. The additional plot lines created for the 10+ hours long show will delve much further into the world Atwood created but the show can never fully capture the eloquent prose Atwood committed to paper 30 years ago. The book and the TV adaptation go hand in hand. 

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood published by Vintage, 324 pages.     

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Monday, 29 May 2017

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

Sunday, 21 May 2017

"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.     

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

"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.     

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

"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.     

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Monday, 1 May 2017

"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.     

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

"We stood up on our bikes and pumped our legs, pedaling faster, leaving behind the neighborhood and talk of our futures"

The 1980s are enjoying a long overdue renaissance through TV shows like Stranger Things celebrating all things analogue. The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak is set firmly in this movement.

The story concerns 14 year old Will Marvin whose life revolves around music, film and 8-bit computer video games until the moment TV icon Vanna White appears in Playboy. Will's world begins to spin in a different direction as he and his friends become obsessed with getting hold of a copy of the magazine. They devise increasingly complicated schemes to procure the magazine from various stores in their home town of, aptly named, Wetbridge New Jersey.

Wetbridge is brilliantly portrayed by Rekulak as dullsville, a town in which the local cinema has only limited letters for their marquee meaning that films end up being renamed, like "LITTL SHP OV HORRS", for this unique New Jersey audience.

Mid caper Will meets Mary, a young computer nerd who works for her father in a shop that sells typewriter spares and a very limited range of basic home PCs. The plot develops like a Speilberg movie with the pair working together to help programme Will's own video game, The Impossible Fortress, which they enter into a regional contest.

The narrative moves like a classic platform style video game where the players must overcome various challenges to get to the next stage and the end reward. Readers can can actually play along at Rekulak's own website ( which brings a brilliantly conceived experiential aspect to the book - take note publishers.

The current trend for all things 1980s could well be driven by a need to escape to a time when relationships were defined by cassette mix tapes and fear by Stephen King novels but whatever the reason The Impossible Fortress is a brilliant read.

The book cover taps into the craze around the Netflix show Thirteen Reasons Why, surely no coincidence.

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

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak published by Faber and Faber, 304 pages.     

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Friday, 21 April 2017

"Far away, between the trees, she saw the sea and behind it a dark mountainside where the sunshine glinted on windows like stars - as though a piece of sky had fallen to earth"

This week I'm thrilled to be featured again in a blog tour from the wonderful folks at Orenda Books - thank you for the review copy! This time I'm delving into the world of Nordic Noir with Faithless (Oslo Detectives) by Norwegian prize winning crime writer Kjell Ola Dahl. Its my first read from K.O. Dahl, though I'm a huge fan of the genre, so as the first rays of Spring sunshine tentatively pour through my kitchen window I'm already wondering whether Oslo Detectives can match up to Iceland's Ari Thor or Sweden's Kurt Wallander.

So, some context. Faithless is set in Oslo and features detective partners Gunnarstranda and Frolich who feature in at least three other novels from K.O. Dahl. Don't let this worry you, I managed fine without having read the other novels in the series. The story begins with a reassuringly dark discovery when the boiled and bagged body of a young woman turns up in a dustbin - fans of the genre will not be disappointed; clearly the rain soaked streets of Oslo deliver the sorts of chilling crime that detectives from Stockholm to Reykjavik are familiar with.

In a separate story line Gunnarstranda is despatched to Northern Norway to investigate the murder of another young woman but its the body in Oslo that Frolich is left to investigate that yields the best story. There is a great twist to this case as Frolich actually recognises the dead girl having come into contact with her recently. This personal angle proves to be the most gripping aspect of the story and humanises Frolich in a way seldom seen in classic hard-boiled Scandi crime.

The case develops at a bit of a plodding case and is a little corny in places; 'As Marilyn sings so convincingly, "Diamonds are a girls best friend"', but at other times Kjell delivers the vividly brutal sort of scenes we've come to expect. These are interspersed with banter about Sinatra and the Rat Pack which seem out of place but perhaps I'm missing something by not having read the other novels featuring Gunnarstranda and Frolich (I probably will put this right).

If you like your crime fiction chilly then Faithless is for you but if you need a more bitingly cold and pacy read then stick with the genre but try Arne Dahl or Ragnar Jonasson.

I read this novel in paperback mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

Faithless (Oslo Detectives) by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett) published by Orenda Books, 276 pages.     

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Friday, 14 April 2017

"Is Keflavik a beautiful prayer or a bright embrace?"

I recently took a short break to Iceland and literally haven't stopped thinking about the extraordinary landscapes and brooding skies ever since. When I realised that there was an Icelandic novel in the shortlist for the Man Booker International prize I had to get hold of a copy. I've read a number of Icelandic crime novels before from Ragnar Jonasson and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, but I was interested to see how a literary novel translated from Icelandic into English would fare? Can a novel capture the sense of place that I felt as I left Keflavik Airport for home?

Fish Have No Feet is a family drama which hinges on the character of Ari returning home to Iceland from some years working for a publishing firm in Copenhagen. The story is set in Keflavik, a town on the far edge of Iceland once home to a US Airbase, hamburger joints and dance halls but now left with "nothing but abandoned buildings and unemployment". Keflavik is a metaphor in the novel for a particularly cold and isolated view of Iceland that Ari sees through regretful eyes. Going to Keflavik, Ari remembers, "is always like driving out of the world and into non-existence".

As Ari makes his way back to Iceland  he looks back on his own life and that of his relatives before him. Stefansson brilliantly allows the narrative to move backward and forwards through time by anchoring the story through a deep understanding of the culture, "where human life measures itself against the sea" that tightly binds this remote part of the island together.

The novel is dark and reflective in places but for every shadow there is a glimpse of sunlight. Ari is a a Nordic 'everyman' dealing with family, career, pride and self-worth and looking back on a youth in which he didn't know what life was for.

Fish Have No Feet is an brilliantly unforgettable novel set in a completely unique town. Stefannson's prose, and Philip Roughton's translation, is as idiosyncratic as the lunar landscape that surrounds Keflavik - a view that anyone visiting iceland will see for themselves on the transfer from the Airport to Reykjavik. If a novel can ever lay claim to real place-making then Fish Have No Feet puts Keflavik firmly on the map.

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Fish Have no Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (translated by Philip Roughton) published by MacLehose Press, 384 pages.     

"But history isn't the paper its printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things tha...