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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Agree with my review? Comment and share to join the discussion #readmorebooks

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.     

Sunday, 2 April 2017

"There is evil in the world. There is definitely evil in this world of ours. We carve monuments to our fallen, engrave them with the names of those whose lives were snuffed out when trying to stop evil"

As a teenager I loved weekends in the Lake District; staying over at youth centres trying to get to grips with orienteering and hiking but generally just messing about with mates in the 'great outdoors'. Six Stories took me right back to those days though, thankfully, my own memories are not quite so dark.

Six Stories is the debut novel from Matt Wesolowski  - winner of various awards for his short fiction but published in long form for the first time by Orenda (thanks for the advanced copy!).

The novel is essentially a crime thriller but its Wesolowski's unique narrative structure that sets Six Stories apart. The story is a series of podcasts which set out to investigate an historical murder at an outward-bounds centre in Northumberland. The host of the podcast, Scott King, looks at the case from the perspective of a different characters in each episode. In terms of storytelling this works and allows the full events to unfold as they would if you, the reader, were the investigators.

The structure allows for 6 different perspectives that allow multiple viewpoints on the events that unfold. The narrative builds into a drug and hormone filled nightmare that leaves you doubting the authenticity of all the narrators.

The Northumberland setting works really well as a 'place that conjures monsters of the mind' like the local myth of 'Nanna Wrack' or the Canadian 'Qalupalik'.  Wesolowski is a great writer who has clearly been honing his craft for sometime. This is a great story with a unique narrative structure that delivers a punchy twist. Read it now before it hits the bestseller list. 

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski published by Orenda, 320 pages.      

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

"There is an art to misinterpreting. It needs to be done subtly so that it doesn't cause chaos, but just enough to leave a lingering sense of confusion"

I came across this debut novel from Saleem Haddad in WHSmith's new writers section and after starting it straight away on the train I was immediately hooked. I don't think I've read another book about a young gay guy living in the Middle East.

Guapa tells the story of a young guy, Rasa, living in an unnamed Arabic city in and around the time of the Arab Spring. The story is told in a single impassioned day in which Rasa's life unravels in a whirlwind of potential shame and disgrace or eib. Rasa lives in an apartment with his grandmother who he manages to conceal his relationship with boyfriend Taymour from until she spies them through a key hole. This is the central narrative hook the plot hangs off but the story is so much more.

Rasa is completely disillusioned by life in the Middle East but also by Western culture which is vividly explained in a flash back to his time studying in the US around the time of the 9/11 attacks which left his identity as more threat than exotic; "America is like a fisherman's hook that can catch you and either cut you up and eat you, or if you are not to its taste, toss you back in the water with a hook shaped hole in your cheek". Back at home Haddad brilliantly uses Rasa's job as a translator as a metaphor for the internal dilemma he faces making sense of the World.

Guapa itself is an underground gay bar which the city's LGBT community use as a base and sanctuary. The story could easily portray this alternative reality as a cliche but Haddad's portrayal is raw and authentic but never over the top. Haddad writes the character of Rasa's friend Majid, a celebrated local drag queen, perfectly. Narratively Guapa needs Majid as a counter balance to the relationship between Rasa and Taymour.

I left this novel wanting to read more. I thoroughly trusted Saleem Haddad as a writer and for opening my eyes to so much within the limits of a highly readable novel. This novel is part political, part religious but entirely human and I can't wait to read more but this exciting author.

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Guapa by Saleem Haddad published by Europa Editions, 304 pages.      

Saturday, 18 March 2017

"The nightingale sang again. The plates on the table gleamed, and the food, in all its ceaseless variety, breathed glossy and bright. The night had only just begun"

I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear Hiromi Kawakami speak when she was in London recently and, thanks to Foyles on Charing Cross Road, I got the chance to attend a brilliant Q&A session and book signing. The main topic was Kawakami's celebrated recent novels (previously reviewed on this blog) Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nagano Thrift Shop but we also got to learn more about the so far untranslated work that might one day make it into English.

Hiromi Kawakami occupies a unique position alongside other contemporary Japanese women writers. Her work is characterised by strong female leads who are often at odds with mainstream society in some way. Kawakami's writing is intimate and personal but in A Record of a Night too Brief we find a more whimsical and ephemeral style.

A Record of a Night too Brief is a collection of three novellas which are stylistically though not narratively linked. For me the strongest of the novellas is the eponymous A Record of a Night Too Brief about a woman who travels through a dreamlike world of never-ending night with her porcelain girlfriend (yes that's right). This is a story of extraordinary love, loss and matter-of-fact tragedy; "The girl was already showing signs of no longer being a girl.. the ends of her arms and legs had begun to divide into branches; her hair had fallen out".  The pithy chapter titles 'Lion' and 'Apoptosis' are the only breaks in this endlessly surreal nightmare. At times the story reminded me of Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away; a young girl unknowingly enters a magical parallel world inhabited by animals and silent masked creatures.

Anyone new to Kawakami would be better to start with the more conventional novels before moving to these less complete but enjoyable fables but it is brilliant that Pushkin Press have packaged them in this way. The cover artwork by Nathan Burton Design is instantly covetable and I'm pretty pleased to have a signed copy on my bookshelf!

I read this novel in paperback on the train into Marylebone

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami published by Pushkin Press, 160 pages.      

Sunday, 26 February 2017

"These rare men are apt to possess three basic attributes - their physical appearence is extraordinary, they have a quality of relaxation, of inner certainty, and they exude a powerful animal magnetism "

What to say about Ian Fleming's Thunderball? Just another 007 thriller heavy on international travel, super villains and glamorous women? Of course Thunderball contains all the classic Bond ingredients but the reason I'm reviewing the novel this week is due to a first edition copy I was gifted for Valentines' Day - not bad!

My copy is from the original 50 thousand first printed in hard-back by Jonathan Cape in March 1961 and sold for 15 shillings (about £20 in today's money). The novel quickly sold out and whilst my copy is missing the original dust jacket it is in remarkable condition.

As I opened the first page I thought about who first bought this copy back in the sixties. As the ninth book in the Bond series the original owner could well have been a 007 fan already but no doubt the forthcoming release of the first Sean Connery film adaptation, Dr No (released in 1962) would have been hotly anticipated by readers at this stage. Whatever the reason splashing out on a hard-back copy would have been quite an indulgence.

I'm pretty sure that it didn't disappoint. The story is set mostly in the Bahamas with Bond dispatched to track down two nuclear bombs stolen by new international syndicate SPECTRE. Fleming writes some pretty violent passages at times, the scene in which pilot Petacchi is murdered by a stiletto through the roof of the mouth and into the brain is described as 'a sear of pain, and an explosion of brilliant light'.

James Bond's attitude to women remains one of the most 'period' aspects of the book. In one scene Fleming admits that 'women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are very seldom first-class' before realising the danger for Bond as 'this girl drives like a man'.

Interestingly Thunderball was the first Bond novel adapted from a screenplay (Fleming had previously worked on the screenplay Longitude 78 West) which suggests how important Fleming's cinematic aspirations had become at this stage. The novel was written in Flemings Caribbean home Goldeneye and was so well received that it has been adapted twice for the cinema as well as for a radio play and a comic strip.

Needless to say I'm now contemplating investing in more first edition copies!

I read this novel in hardback on the train into Marylebone

Thunderball by Ian Fleming published by Jonathan Cope, 253 pages.      

"You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your ...