Quick Reviews of Non-Japanese Books

Although I’ve posted mainly reviews of the books I read for January in Japan thus far, I’ve actually read quite a lot of enjoyable books this month.

Lucy Atkins: Magpie Lane – a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, with a very classical feel to it nevertheless because it is set in Oxford and its rather anachronistic college system. A dysfunctional family with a selectively mute child, viewed through the no-nonsense eyes of a nanny who is an outsider to Oxford. Excellent build-up, although I felt slightly ambiguous about the ending.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I am probably being a bit unfair on this one when I say it is a very narrow world that is being presented here: the world of writing and publishing, a young woman in search of success and love. I like such subject matter (and probably would have loved it even more in my 20s), but it’s a bit of a disappointment after King’s previous book Euphoria, an excellent and rather revolutionary book about anthropologists, which felt like it was painted on a much larger canvas with bold brushstrokes. This one is a neat little miniature.

Jenny Offill: Weather – I was perhaps the only person in the world who was not smitten with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It had many witty observations which struck a chord with me, but overall I felt it was a lazy way to tell a story. The fragments just did not seem to build up to a coherent and complex whole (unlike Tokarczuk’s Flights, for example). But I do think she is an interesting writer, so I was willing to give her another chance. This is also a fragmented novel, but the format suits the subject matter better: the musings of a mother trying to navigate the opaque education system in the great American cities, interspersed with her work with a climate activist, her reactions to the 2016 presidential elections and so on. A state of the nation novel, but on a much shorter scale than Ducks, Newburyport (as far as I can tell, not having read the latter).

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street – the most poetic German crime writer you could ever hope to find, her style is an intriguing mix of noir and jazz and modern sensibilities. I liken it to my own personal Cowboy Bebop (the cool cult anime series of the 1990s). This volume is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story set in the Mhallami community (yes, new to me too, an ethnic minority historically designed to protect the Eastern flank of the Ottoman Empire) in Germany.

Matt Wesolowski: Beast – There are six sides to every story, or so Matt Wesolowski tells us in his series of books imitating true crime podcasts. With every new ‘podcast’ we get a different view on the story, an added layer of complexity, and it really shows us that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or an easy answer. This one was particularly terrifying, not so much for its links to vampire stories, but because it is about a young girl, Elizabeth Barton, a popular vlogger, who is found frozen to death in a ruined tower on the Northumbrian coast. It depicts how desperate some people are to find online fame and friendships, and it frightened me when I thgouth how this might affect my own children (even though they say it doesn’t).

Neil Blackmore: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle – Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, because the plot felt rather predictable. Two brothers, sons of a rich tradesman, set off on their European tour in the 1760s. They are well-read but haven’t been able to break into ‘good society’, so this is their chance to impress. But things go awry when they meet the rebellious, cynical, charming and utterly corrupt Mr Lavelle. Although at times it did feel like a philosophy tract (look, I like my dose of Voltaire as much as anyone, but it didn’t have all that much bearing on the story!), it was on the whole great fun to read, quite a lot of description of gay sex, and an excellent rebuttal of British snobbery past and present.

Liz Nugent: Our Little Cruelties – Another book, another dysfunctional family, this time three brothers who have competed all their lives for their mother’s love and admiration. Written from the points of view of each of the brothers, it is clever in the way it shows how easy it is to justify even our ugliest actions to ourselves – and that we never learn from mistakes but merely blame others. Liz Nugent is frighteningly good at depicting male narcissists.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – a last-minute entry for the mini #PersephoneReadathon, deserves a separate review and got it

I am currently reading Square Haunting by Francesca Wade about five formidable women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the 1920s and 30s, and I can already see it will become a firm favourite!

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost for #PersephoneReadathon

I found out rather late that this weekend would be a mini-readathon of Persephone books, but I have a few unread ones on my shelf, so couldn’t resist joining in. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is reasonably short, and I had enjoyed my other foray into Laski’s work The Victorian Chaise-Longue, so I had a nice lie-in on Saturday (which hasn’t happened in ages) and devoured almost half of it, to be followed by more of the same on Sunday morning.

It is a very simple story of the search for a missing child: Hilary Wainwright had to leave his wife and child behind in France during the war. His wife died and his two-year old son disappeared, so he is now trying to retrace him. Pierre, a former resistance fighter who knew his wife, helps piece together the probable escape route for the child and they trace him (or a boy who corresponds closely to their reconstructed story) to an orphanage in the north of France. Hilary goes there to meet the boy, and decide if he is his son and therefore worthy of being rescued.

This book was written soon after the end of the Second World War and it’s a candid, uncomfortable portrait of a world that has been reduced to rubble both literally and metaphorically. The contrast between the relatively shielded world of England and the devastation of most of continental Europe is stark. The nephews and nieces pouting under the Christmas tree because their presents were not exactly what they expected are the counterpoint of the little boy Jean and his pathetic little collection of ‘treasures’: a pine cone, a marble with all its colour rubbed away and a headless swan.

Laski is extremely good at observing a certain class of Englishman and their romanticised notions of France. They suffer to see France in ruins because of what they have lost, as much as for the sake of the inhabitants.

Yet where those ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by… It seemed to Hilary that bomb damage in a French town was a greater tragedy than elsewhere because here the way of life destroyed was in complete antithesis to all that bombs were trying to achieve.

Good though she is at depicting the self-centredness of this type of Englishman abroad, Laski is also unsparing in her depiction of a country that has had to suffer the humiliation of conquest, where people have had to make choices about collaborating with their invaders or resisting. She raises the question: ‘What would you have done under the circumstances?’ Given that Hilary cannot resist the lure of the black market at his hotel in France in order to get better dinners and coffee, even though he knows it is morally wrong and depriving the poorer people of food, I suspect the answer is: ‘Chosen the easy route.’

The receptionist who so politely gave me my fiche to fill in – had he performed the same service for Germans, bowing without a trace of hate on his face, without hate even in his heart? Is it even possible that it is I, not the German, whom he hates?

He burst out to Pierre as soon as the porter had put down the bag and closed the door, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Pierre promptly, ‘but automatically now and without caring about the answer. I’m tired with “collaborationist” as a term of abuse; we each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.’

The orphan boy Jean is so appealing that my maternal instincts were instantly aroused. I would have wrapped him up in something warm without a second thought and taken him home with me. But Hilary is careful and cautious and wants to make sure not only that this is indeed his son, but that he is still capable of loving someone and of being loved. In actual fact, he is far more of the lost boy of the title than the thin little waif Jean… but dearie me, is it hard to empathise with him! I could barely resist the impulse to say: you are a grown-up, you haven’t gone through half of the hardships this child has had to endure, just get over yourself and show some compassion!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough: it has both heart and a very analytical mind. One of the best Persephones I’ve read yet, a window into the post-war world that should give those hankering after the ‘glory days’ pause for thought.

Incy-Wincy Teeny-Weeny Reviews for End of 2018

Thank goodness for the holidays, which allowed me to read (although not necessarily finish) 15 books in December, including a real humdinger doorstopper like Lamentation. I will be reviewing those that fit into the #EU27Project separately if I haven’t already done so (actually, only Rein Raud fits here) but let me give a very quick review of the rest. Without reminding you too much of yellow polka-dot bikinis in this cold, I promise!

Cathy Ace: Wrong Boy

After glamorous international locations in her Cait Morgan series and a United Sleuths of the UK series, Cathy Ace returns to her home turf of Wales and a closed village community, a tale of family secrets, superstitions and dark folklore. Although I thought the plot a tad predictable and the ending overly dramatic, the tangled relationships and beautiful, if eerie landscapes made this an entertaining read. The book will be out January 9th.

Joan Didion: After Henry

The tribute to their editor (the Henry of the title) was very moving, the rest is a collection of essays, largely political, which were interesting but no longer cutting edge (all referring to the 1980s or thereabouts), so I skimmed through them. Not as good as other Joan Didion things I’ve read.

Petra Hammesfahr: The Sinner, transl. John Brownjohn

Reviewed it on Crime Fiction Lover. Interesting to compare and contrast the original German setting with the Americanization of the setting and the script.

S.J.I. Holliday: The Lingering

I don’t believe in ghosts and am not easily scared, so I suppose this wasn’t quite the book for me. I found the ‘cult’ aspect of it interesting though, and done quite well, without exaggerating the negative aspects.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I was an overseas student from a country perceived as backward in the 1990s, so I had such high hopes for this one. But it was dull. A lot of ‘she did this… and then she did this… and then they met… and then they talked.’ I just couldn’t be bothered to finish it, but perhaps it picks up towards the end.

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Katherine Parr is probably my favourite wife too (of Henry the VIII’s harem), so I enjoyed this from the point of view of time period and content. It is clearly well researched, and there are so many clever little details which fully immerse you in that period, without being overly stiff and pedantic. I enjoyed the characters, the random changes of politics and the depiction of the cruel and crude justice of that period, but I was not bowled over. It was just too long for my taste.

Antonio Manzini: Black Run, transl. Antony Shugaar

The murder plays second fiddle to the story of fish-out-water detective Rocco Schiavone exiled to Val D’Aosta. I loved the descriptions of mountain and snow and how Rocco struggles with his inadequate footwear, but the atmosphere did not quite make up for the lack of plot, real character depth or social analysis.

Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise Longue

An odd little story of time-travel and the frustration of women’s secondary role in society in Victorian times and the so-called present-time setting of the book (I think it is set in the 1920s-30s, although it was published in 1953). Quite claustrophobic and disturbing, quietly terrifying, reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper and The Turn of the Screw. But it is far more matter-of-fact and droll, with very sharp dialogue throughout.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Another book that excelled in terms of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions, but the story felt like something I’d read or seen a hundred times before. Notes on a Scandal and The Woman Upstairs spring to mind, and they both appealed to me more.

Lou Sarabadzic: La Vie verticale

One of the most effective and painful descriptions of what it is like to live with OCD, panic attacks, depression and then to undergo treatment when you are between cultures, between languages. Also an interesting ‘choose your own story’ structure, although it doesn’t really matter utimately, as there is no clear plotline or story arc. The structure is deliberately repetitive and circular, because this situation can reoccur, you are never entirely ‘cured’.

M.B. Vincent: Jess Castle and the Eyeballs of Death

English village cosy, with a dash of romance, although quite a horrific series of murders. It was a very entertaining and quick read, perfectly suited for New Year’s Eve, but not particularly memorable. Like M.C. Beaton but with younger protagonists.

Maybe I’d have been kinder to everyoone if I’d been reading in this armchair.

I realise I sound quite curmudgeonly about nearly all of the books this month. I was quite taken by the two books about the Yugoslav War and The Victorian Chaise Longue, but the rest were mostly popcorn and comfort food. However, 2019 has started strong with Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman.