Tuesday, 10 October 2017

"The weathered black stone of the parliament building made it look more like a prison than the cradle of democracy"

Lilja Sigurdardottir literally pulls you into Snare from the opening chapter and, believe me, you'll struggle to put this book down.

Snare is a slice of cool Nordic Noir about a woman, Sonia, caught in a trap as a drugs smuggler into Keflavik airport whilst fighting her ex over custody of their son. Sonia's resourcefulness to make ends meet in such a high stakes environment creates a tension that Sigurdardottir exploits to brilliant effect throughout the novel as the narrative steams ahead with the pace of Sonia's fast paced moves to evade capture.

The Iceland in Snare remains in the grip of the banking crisis which brought the island to its knees in 2010. The country remains deeply suspicious as the Government, and the media, continue to round up those involved in the financial deals which led to the collapse of the economy; "The weathered black stone of the Parliament building made it look more like a prison than the cradle of democracy".To complicate matters further Sonia ends up in a passionate relationship with Agla, one of the cold and apathetic executives involved in the investigations.

As the grey ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption relentlessly settles on the streets of Reykjavik so too does the white powder that Sonia continues to bring in to Iceland despite the ongoing suspicion of Bragi a senior customs officer at Keflavik. As the plot develops the snare tightens to the point where Sonia faces her most audacious job yet smuggling a quantity of cocaine into Iceland from London.

Snare is an exceptionally good thriller translated into a pacy and urgent English language, by Quentin Bates, that is edge of the seat stuff. I immediately warmed to Sonia who does what she needs to in order to provide for Thomas in spite of her difficult and complex relationship with his father and equally difficult relationship with Agla who can't come to terms with her professional reputation and her visceral feelings for another woman. But its customs official Bragi who offers up the greatest surprise in the end.

Lilja Sigurdardottir we need more, Quentin Bates you're going to be busy.

I read this novel in paperback mostly over a weekend at home in Oxfordshire. Read more reviews of Icelandic literature here; Ragnar Jonasson Jon Kalman Steffanson

Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir (translated by Quentin Bates)published by Orenda Books, 276 pages.     

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

"Its hard to find clothes to fit the body you have, and its hard to find words to fit the people you love."

Early on in Dorthe Nors's Man Booker International Prize shortlisted novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal we meet Sonja, a forty something woman taking driving lessons at home in Copenhagen. Sonja has a good grasp of the basics behind the wheel and yet seems permanently stuck in the wrong gear but is it competence or fear that's really holding Sonja back?

I'd been meaning to pick this book up since I first read the Man Booker International 2017 shortlist but it wasn't until a surreptitious visit to the library last week that I actually got my hands on the book.  Its a thin novel, only 139 pages, which in my world means I start straight away.

Misha Hoekstra's translation seems natural and I'm quickly immersed in the fantastic characters Nors creates from the instructors at the driving school to Sonja's sage like masseuse who add depth and dimension to this lyrical story about a woman who can't move forward in life. Sonja's circumstances will resonate with audiences everywhere but the interplay between her urban life in Copenhagen and her family in provincial Jutland is particularly Danish; "..its tricky making yourself invisible in a world that's as flat as a pancake".

What's so clever in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is the amount of story Nors packs into so few pages. Sonja goes on a real journey through the novel but the way Nors reduces this to the simple conflict around changing gears in a driving lesson is a masterclass in precision writing. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, deserves a place in the Danish Design Centre alongside Arne Jacobson's minimal yet elegant Egg Chair.

Great job (again) Pushkin Press for publishing new and innovative writing from around the world and  thank you (again) Oxfordshire Libraries for your well endowed stacks!

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

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors and translated by Misha Hoekstra, published by Pushkin Press, 139 pages.     

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

"It occurred to him that each book top was like the knuckle of a vertebrae. He sat up, head reeling. He could see bones everywhere. He was living in a house of spines."

A few chapters in to Michael J Malone's new book House of Spines and I'm wondering; can Malone really pull off a gothic horror story set in contemporary Glasgow? The set up is interesting, down on his luck writer Ranald learns, out of the blue, that he has inherited a country house from an unknown Uncle who has specifically called for the house, and its well endowed library, to be handed to his nephew upon his death.

As unlikely as this twist of fate seems Ranald is soon in a cab heading over to the estate where he'll meet his Uncle's lawyer and the housekeeper who manages the house with her husband. Its a classic 'Why me?' moment for Ran but is there anything in his late mother's behaviour that might of hinted at her wealthy family roots? He has nothing else to do so may as well investigate.

House of Spines contains all the classic gothic horror tropes from kooky house keepers to broken lifts and eerie sounds coming from the walls. When a mysterious cousin turns up to contest the will you know you're in safe hands with Malone who evidently has a clear talent for storytelling. Malone delivers a page turner that is (thematically at least) the love child of Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel and Stephen King's The Shining.

Ran is a believable character whose ability to both trust and challenge those around him makes him convincing and real. When his world turns upside down we empathise with him and root for the truth to emerge from his twisted family history; "I'm pretty certain that every generation of your family has had its victims, Ran. You need to break that cycle and get the hell out of here. Before its too late."  

The plot comes thick and fast with Ran emerging from the house occasionally to visit the cafe in the village which Malone uses effectively as a means for Ran to learn more about his family's history from the villagers. The more he immerses himself into life in the house the more he learns about is Uncle Alexander, about his own Mother and about the tragic event that defined his Uncle's life.

So can Michael J Malone pull off a gothic horror story in contemporary Glasgow? Yes, House of Spines is a top class read that's as hard to put down as the best in the genre.

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

House of Spines by Michael J Malone published by Orenda Books, 276 pages.     

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Sunday, 10 September 2017

"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, 3 September 2017

"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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Monday, 28 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

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

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Sunday, 20 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

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

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Sunday, 13 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

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

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Monday, 7 August 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

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

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Sunday, 23 July 2017

"You can buy a man's hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no-one can take away from any man so much as a single moment"

As I sit and write this blog post I'm enjoying every bite of a surprisingly well turned out courgette and orange cake that I rustled up yesterday taking advantage of the generosity of my lovely neighbours and their over yielding allotment. Living beside kind people who routinely post vegetables through your letter box is nothing but a blessing and it got me thinking; what treasures could I pass over the garden wall? Until the day as I master pickling, home brew or jam making the best I can offer is a pre-loved paper-back and this week I have just the thing.

A Whole Life (Ein Ganzes Lieben) by Robert Seethaler was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize a few years back but I didn't discover it myself until the release of follow up novel The Tobacconist. I saw Robert Seethaler read from both books at an event organised by the Austrian Cultural Council a few months back and picked up a copy a couple of days later.

A Whole Life is a short novel at only 162 pages but at the end you'll remember a far longer work so rich, though succinct, is the prose and so epic the storytelling. The life in question is that of Andreas Egger, a man of very few words but boundless love and respect for the mountain on which he lives. His whole life is literally played out in this Alpine setting from childhood to an early career constructing cable cars through to war, internment by the Russians and beyond.

Seethaler writes poetically and poignantly about love, loss and tragedy but Andreas Egger is remarkable not so much for what he endures but for the way he copes with the hand he's dealt. Egger simply gets on with life, rolls with the punches and lets the mountain determine his destiny.

As an older man Egger takes on the role of mountain guide; "If you like the mountains, I'm your man" reads his local ad. Escorting small groups along the mountain trails Egger makes sense of everything that he's experienced over the years. An Ordnance Survey map of the heart.

A Whole Life is a beautiful book that needs to be read. The least I can do is pass my copy over the wall with a little note from me; "You've just found your next read"

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler and translated by Charlotte Collins published by Picador, 162 pages.     

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"The weathered black stone of the parliament building made it look more like a prison than the cradle of democracy " L...