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!

Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand

I have to admit I still get excited about novels which experiment with narrative structure and confound expectations. There is far too little tolerance for that from publishers (and perhaps readers too, but not as much as publishers think) nowadays. However, if I say that both Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf are postmodern novels, you will probably yawn and want to run away a hundred miles. However, they both are postmodern thrillers, and one of them worked well for me, while the other didn’t.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (transl. Tim Mohr)

This mash-up of spy thriller, action movie and film noir is intent on messing with our heads – and it fully succeeded as far as this reader was concerned. I was confused, struggled to keep the various names, narrators and events apart, although the story was roughly chronological. The main character is ‘Carl’, an amnesiac who is found wandering in the desert, and who some believe to be a spy. He tries to find out more about his identity and encounters all sorts of villains, desperate people and a blonde femme fatale along the way.

Here are some of the post-modernist techniques I observed: parody (of thriller genres), black humour, clever little intertextual references (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, but also Casablanca and others) and metafiction (multiple possible beginnings, deliberate misdirection, unreliable narrators all undermining the authority of the author).

I have to admit there are flashes of brilliance and farcical situations in the book which made me laugh and gasp out loud (perhaps also wipe away a tear). But they were few and far between, not enough to make me rush back for more. I struggled to finish the book, which I felt became a victim of its own ambition to say something about the overall state of the world. Yet it succeeded, in a way, even if at the expense of coherence. That is, if the bleak message the author intended was the futility of being honest and good in a world where incompetence and stupidity reign supreme.

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories 

In contrast, Wesolowski did not set out to be ambitiously and deliberately post-modern. Instead, he uses the popular format of serial podcasts to structure his novel and in doing so creates a Rashomon-like controversy over whose interpretation of events do you believe. Patterns emerge, but so do the gaps –  what are all these storytellers deliberately avoiding? Memory is of course notoriously unreliable, and over twenty years the participants in those mysterious events have had time to repress unpleasant memories or to reinterpret them in a self-justifying light.

So we find plenty of misdirection here, as hidden fears emerge and it becomes clear that the youngsters from 20 years ago misunderstood certain events or were projecting different personalities than they came to inhabit later in life. There is also a strong pastiche of podcasts, selfie-culture and our apparently endless appetite for true crime (including the rather bizarre practice of hooded interviews). Aside from Rashomon, there are allusions to The Wasp Factory, A Clockwork Orange, the Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps even Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and other books about disaffected youth and trying to piece together the truth about a so-called accidental death. Finally, here too we have a sense of mourning about the casual cruelty of youth, recklessness, stupidity and the senseless tragedy that ensues.

This book is not pretentiously post-modern and pregnant with weighty themes, it simply wants to tell a good story. And that is exactly why it works. I could not put it down until I finished it. While Sand had the heavy atmosphere of wading to the top of a steep sand dune, Six Stories was an exhilarating gallop through woodland and moors. There was an addictive quality to the writing, tinged with just enough horror and unexplained phenomena to make you shudder and read on, peeking through your fingers.

 

 

Orenda Roadshow Comes to London Piccadilly

I always knew Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was a formidable woman and a passionate publisher, but she really outdid herself this evening. Where else can you see 15 excellent and diverse writers, from 7 different countries (8 if you count Scotland), all in the space of two hours on a Wednesday night in central London?

The concept was simple but effective: each writer introduced themselves and their book briefly, then each read a passage. There was a bit of time for Q&A at the end, but time just flew by and I could have listened to them for hours. They are a fun bunch of writers, who have gelled together really well and build upon each other’s words at public events. While it was predominantly a psychological thriller/crime fiction sort of evening, there are also some authors who have written outside that genre: Su Bristow with her poetic retelling of the Selkie myth, Louise Beech with her heartbreaking portrayals of children and Sarah Stovell with the story of an obsessive love which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal.

Four Nations Game. From left to right: Gunnar Staalesen and Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway), Michael Malone (Scotland), Sarah Stovell, Matt Wesolowski, Steph Broadribb (all England), Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland).

This was followed by an enormous and delicious cake, aquavit to celebrate the National Day of Norway alongside more usual beverages, and lots of informal mingling and book signing.

Aren’t they all gorgeous? Sometimes I think Karen picks them for their looks as well as their talent. From left to right: Kati Hiekkapelto, Thomas Enger, Paul Hardisty, Louise Beech, Johanna Gustawson, Antti Tuomainen, Stanley Trollip from the writing duo Michael Stanley, Ragnar Jonasson, Su Bristow and Karen Sullivan.

It was great to also meet some of the others on the Orenda team: editor West Camel, distribution group Turnaround, cover designer Mark Swan. There were familiar faces of bloggers as well. Karen has managed to create a real feeling of community and genuine enthusiasm around her authors and publishing house, which feels more like family than corporate care.

Antti and Ragnar contemplating nautical tomes at Waterstones.

Two more Nordics for you: Ragnar Jonasson and Kjell Ola Dahl.

On the way there I was musing about Orenda’s ‘brand’. Karen makes no apologies about offering entertainment, but it is page-turning, original, good entertainment, rather than one relying on ‘more of the same cliché-churning drivel that is currently making money’, which some of the publishing giants are turning out. I may not love all of the books equally (I am not a huge action thriller fan, for example), but I have not disliked or left any Orenda book unread. I can count on them to entertain and enlighten, make me laugh and cry, while some of them have become huge favourites.

Of course I already owned all of the books, thanks to Orenda’s wonderful habit of involving bloggers and reviewers pre-release, but that didn’t stop me buying a few more to be signed or to give to friends. I also started Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski on the train on the way to the event and was so riveted that I did not stop until I finished it last night (or early this morning, rather).

Matt with his original, inventive debut novel.

The Roadshow will be stopping at Crimefest in Bristol next, so go and see them there if you get a chance. Congratulations to all, and I can’t wait to see what you are all up to next.