Recommendation: “Gyo” by Junji Ito

Something is wrong. A stench that drove Tadashi and Kaori from their holiday at the sea has followed them to their apartment in the city. A stench that is driving Kaori mad. But as terrible as that stench is, what is about to follow it out of the sea may be more than mankind can handle.

Gyo. A novel you read when you’re fine never to want to look at a fish ever again.

Junji Ito’s work is something that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go. Grotesque and beautiful. He has a masterful grasp of the very essence of horror; taking something normal and twisting it slightly until it becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoy Uzumaki, the first of Ito’s books I read. But being compared to a masterpiece is never fair, and doesn’t mean Gyo isn’t good. It just didn’t quite have the same overall feel of a completed story. There didn’t seem to be as much character, and the ending came out of nowhere and didn’t really feel satisfying. But that didn’t detract from the experience I had reading.

And that’s what Ito’s work is; an experience. Whatever other opinion you may have of his work, you don’t finish this book the same as you went in.

Recommendation: “The War of the Wolf” by Bernard Cornwell

Now an old man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg finds himself drawn back to Wessex by old oaths and the inevitable coming invasion of Northumbria. But while an ailing King Edward means that soon he’ll find himself marching south, for now he is drawn north by personal vengeance and what may be his final battle.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bernard Cornwall’s series being very samey. I can understand the argument. But I still find that each once is just as readable as the last, and I’ve been waiting eagerly for War of the Wolf to come out in paperback.

I think these books avoid seeming too similar by being based on history. The characters are driven by on actual events, and so while the plot and characters may undeniably have a similarity across all the books, the fact they are draped over the backdrop of history gives them a realism they might otherwise have lacked.

Saying that, I would have though I’d have liked this one less. The majority of the story in War of the Wolf is not based in real events. Essentially, the book sets up the coming death of Edward and rise of Ethelstan that I assume will be the drive of the next story, leaving the majority of the story fictional. But I still enjoyed reading this just as much as the previous stories.

There’s also the fact we’re coming to the end of this series. Uhtred is now in his sixties. And while he, our narrator, can’t die, Cornwall does a very good job of showing age catching up with him. He’s losing speed. He’s still imposing, but lacks the raw power of youth that drove him before. And at the same time, he can see that Christianity is winning, and the old religion, his religion, is passing away. He’s a man beginning to face his own mortality, but in a way that suits the character.

There’s maybe two more books left to this series, assuming that it will end with Ethelstan’s rise as the first king of England (sorry for spoilers, but I think we’re out of the statute of limitations for events over a millennia ago), and War of the Wolf kind of has the feeling of a quick breather before the final push to the climax of the story of the creation of England.

If you’re a fan of the series, that fact is going to leave you more than excited for the next instalment.

Review: “The Murderer’s Ape” by Jekub Welelius

The life of Sally Jones, the ship’s engineer on the Hudson Queen, who just happens to be a gorilla, is thrown into chaos when she and her captain become unwitting pawns in an attempt to overthrow the government. When her best friend is framed for murder she is forced on a journey to prove her innocence that takes her from the kitchen of a Portuguese singer to the palace of a Indian Maharaja.

I’ve had this book on my reading pile for over half a year. I can’t say exactly why it took me so long to start it. I bought it on a whim at a writing event last September, so it wasn’t high up on my list. And I think it’s size put me off a little. I’ve read a few larger books this year that have been slow and ponderous, and I think I wanted to avoid another one.

But once I finally picked it up I really enjoyed The Murderer’s Ape. Despite its length it wasn’t actually that long a read. It refers to itself as a children’s book, but unless you have a year’s worth of bedtime stories to get through I’d have thought it would be a bit much for a child. But it’s not quite young adult. I feel its target audience are those preconscious children who find that early joy in reading. The kind who get their enjoyment from reading books other children can’t manage. Who voluntarily read Lord of the Rings at ten.

I can’t say the story really grabbed me, but I think that’s more because of my age than any fault of the book. I think its a little slow in places, and could have done with a little more peril or thrill, but that’s more my personal taste. It’s a fun, globe trotting tale, filled with a colourful cast of characters, and I think a younger reader would get a lot out of this.

And in the end the length wasn’t an issue. It didn’t take long at all. The writing is good enough that you a zip through without every thinking it’s a chore. I’ve read far thinner novels that have felt like they took longer to read than this one.

A selling point of the book is the art, all of which was done by the author. The story is preceded by a selection of portraits of the main characters, which gives a wonderful feel of the story to come. Those, and the maps included in the covers, signal the nature of the story you have coming, which I think helps mitigate the size of the book. It’s big, but you’re shown it’s scope from the beginning so you don’t worry you’re going to get bored. It also added an element of charm you don’t often see.

The Murderer’s Ape is definitely worth reading if you have the chance. Or would be the perfect gift for that teenager in your life who can’t seem to stop reading.

Review: “The Richer Way” by Julian Richer

This was wasn’t a normal read for me. I’m currently doing a Leadership and Management course that requires me to put in a silly number of hours in my own time, so my reading list is going to be invaded by books on management for the next year or so.

I picked up The Richer Way after reading an article on Julian Richer in the Guardian. He’s planning on giving his company to his employees when he retires, and this sort of thing chimed with me.

And this was actually a really easy read. Richer doesn’t try to make himself sound clever, or pad things out with philosophical musings to make his success seem something more then it is. He simply gives practical advise stemming from one core rule: first and foremost treat your people well. You can tell he has purposely kept the writing simple to ensure this book is accessible to anyone at any level.

Obviously this isn’t a book most people will need to read. It’s not a casual read but a learning resource. But if you run a company or manage people in your job this is essential reading.

Review: “The Upstairs Room” by Kate Murray-Browne

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne is a book made up of three distinct stories:

1) The first is the story of family reaching breaking point. As they struggle with young children, a new house, and a young and free new lodger, Elenor and Richard start to face how neither of them have ever been truly happy with their choices, and whether or not this means their marriage is a sham, or simply more real than the idealised image of it they have had.

2) The second is about a young woman trying to work out who she is. Zoe lives in someone else’s house, works in someone else’s shop, and sleeps with someone else’s boyfriend. All around her are people who seem to know what they’re doing, while she struggles to work out if she will ever find what she is “supposed” to do with her life.

3) The third is a ghost story, where a young couple and their new lodger discover their new house is haunted by a presence that doesn’t want them there. As Elenor gets sicker each day she remains but recovers once outside, Richard refuses to accept that his new house can be anything but perfect. But as Zoes starts to encounter inexplicable night terrors, the three of them need to decide whether to face their own prejudices to run away.

All three of these stories would be interesting to read. Mixed together as they are, they just don’t work. I can see what Murray-Brown was going for, but there is just too much going on. Her main problem is focusing on too many characters. Each time the story gets going and starts to engage you, you’re suddenly faced with huge chunks of back story. And you get this for all three main characters; Richard, Elenor, and their lodger Zoe. If Murray-Brown had focuses on either Zoe or Elenor, the book would have have a simpler through line and got bogged down in itself less often. As it is, the story is so diluted all tension is lost.

It’s a shame, as the writing and characters are good. There is a great book in here. Here’s hoping next time she gets a better story editor.

Recommendation: “The Hoarder” by Jess Kidd

Maud Drennan is a dedicated caregiver trying to move past the secret of a lost sister. When she is assigned to the case of Cathal Flood, a crotchety and apparently dangerous widower, she finds herself drawn into the joint mysteries of his long-lost daughter, and Cathal’s late wife’s seeming obsession with a girl who went missing decades previously. 

As Maud and Cathal bond over a shared dislike of his overbearing son, she starts to believe that there is more the the family and the house, and that Cathal’s dead wife might be trying to lead her to solving a mystery. 

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Having now read her first two books, I’ve found I have a strange relationship with Jess Kidd’s work.

I’ve loved both The Hoarder and Himself. The stories are interesting, the writing poetic and wonderfully Irish, and the characters are fleshed out and realistic. Every part of both books work, both individually and together. Yet, for some reason neither of them have been able to grab me and make me love them.

Objectively, everything about these books is right up my street. But somehow they haven’t taken hold of my attention. I never feel compelled to read on. There are some books where, once I start reading, there’s no stopping. They’ll pull me in and latch hold of me so I want to read them without stopping. I’ll sit up in bed engrossed, reading just one more chapter until I realise I’ve stayed up far too late.

With Kidd’s books, I find I’m happy to pick them up, read a chapter, then put it down. I want to read on, but it doesn’t drive me.

I can’t put my finger on a single reason for this. Every element is correct. There are no weak links, or parts lacking that I can say “that’s the reason”. It’s just a strange and, so far, inexplicable thing.

And I still want to read on. There’s no part of me thing that this is a reason to stop reading her, which is how I usually feel if a book fails to grab me in this way. I have her next book, Things In Jars already in my Want-To-Read list.

I heartily recommend reading Kidd’s book, by the way. I’d love to know if anyone else has the same issue.

Review: “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami is one of those reads where you can’t really look away from the page, yet somehow by the end you’re not really certain what really happened.

I’ve always had an envy for the writing in slice-of-life pieces like this one. You don’t get backstory, or plot-arcs, or even a plot, really. Instead you feel you’ve been dropped in the middle of a single night, experiencing what these characters experience along with them.

Think back over your life. How many life-changing moments were you aware of at the time? Almost none of them. You only realise their importance in your own story much later.

I was left with the feeling that this was one of those nights. The events and meetings are going to change the characters lives. But not yet. Eventually. Overtime there will be more; relationships will develop, conversations will echo, ideas will grow. In a few years, if they are lucky, they’ll look back and recognise the seed that took root on this night.

One day I hope to write something like this. I’ve heard some people don’t like the ending, as it’s abrupt and doesn’t wrap things up nicely in a bow. But I love endings like that.

Recommendation: “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

I am by now convinced that I’ll never not enjoy a Kate Atkinson novel. I can’t say this is my favourite of hers, but that still puts it above most other books. I picked this book up the day I found it had come out in paperback. Atkinson isn’t a writer who you see and don’t grab.

Juliet Armstrong is one of the hundreds of girls brought into the security service on the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon she is selected to join an MI5 operation tracking and recording Nazi sympathisers. We jump between 1940 and the doubts of the early days of the war, to 1950 as Juliet now works at the BBC and has to face new doubts about decisions she made during the war that might be coming back to haunt her.

As always Atkinson presents her story through and emotional and beautifully rendered world. If feels like a different type of historical spy novel. A spy thriller from the point of view of the transcription girl. And it is historical, based on real operations undertaken at the time.

As I said above, it’s not my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. She has written enough now that I feel that can be said without sounding like I’m saying she’s slipping. Some books will be better than others. It’s still an amazing read, and drags you along as soon as it grabs you.

Review: “Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London” by Matthew Beaumont.

I really wanted to like this book more. In fact, I think the amount I wanted to to enjoy it is the only reason I managed to make myself finish it.

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The main concept is one of those that is oddly interesting: a history of London at night. But it is interesting. It’s one of those areas that you don’t realise you’ve never thought about. I mean, when did you last think about how much public street lighting must have fundamentally changed public life? Or what life in the was city like when it would literally be pitch dark at night? I didn’t know that the literal act of being outside at night was once considered a crime. Did you? 

And the conceit should work as well. Beaumont uses examples of literature from different periods throughout London’s history – from Shakespeare to Dickens – to show how these poets and authors – in their work and their lives – reflected these changes in society. How going outside at night without an explicit reason went from being a crime to a leisurely pastime of gentlefolk.

But unfortunately Beaumont took this in completely the wrong direction. Rather than a history shown through the lens of literature, he makes this a literary critique that simply uses history as a loose excuse to show off his own knowledge. His writing is overly literary and self important – seeing the Forward was written by Will Self was fair warning, I suppose – making large chunks of the book almost unreadable. The topics should be interesting, and most often start off that way, but then Beaumont will slip into deep literary analysis that makes it impossible to stay engaged.

Essentially, this could easily lose around half its word-count. It’s not a thin book so wouldn’t look anaemic, and it would be a much better read. Unfortunately Beaumont appears to be part of that literary scene who believe that part of a good book is making it as hard to read as possible. It’s not the subject he’s writing about that he wants us to be impressed with, but his own intelligence. This is not a book the writer intended to be enjoyed. I’m half convinced that Beaumont may have just published his PHD thesis.

It wasn’t so bad that I gave up on it. There was enough in there to chip through and enjoy. But it’s not a good sign when your reaction on finishing a book is relief.

Recommendation: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

It’s World Book Day. I hope you’re all revelling in your favourite reads, or throwing yourself into a book you’ve never read before. Because if there’s one thing that’s just as good as – or perhaps even better than – the joy of rereading an old favourite its that feeling of realisation that the book you’ve just begun is going to be wonderful. That deep happiness of knowing that you will never again get to experience this novel for the first time.

This is what I just encountered with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I wish I could remember exactly who recommend this to me last year, because then I could thank them to directing me to the experience of this read. Sometimes, when you’re trying to describe something, you don’t need fancy words. On these occasions the simple ones will fit better, as they can portray the essentialness of something.

The words that best describe The Night Circus? “Soft” and “Beautiful”.

Le Cirque de Reves moves around the world. It appears in one place as if by magic, opens only between sunset and sunrise, and then after a few days disappears just as suddenly. Decorated solely in black and white, populated by performers and attractions so otherworldly and imaginative that you can barely believe they are real, the experience of walking through the gate is akin to stepping into a dream. And behind all this are Celia and Marcus, two young magicians engaged in a contest to which neither understand the rules or know how or when a winner will be chosen.

Morgenstern’s writing is comforting without feeling worn, and elegant without being pretentious. It has the feel of something new that’s been expertly hand crafted to feel old and comfortable. She doesn’t rush a single word. If you require fast paced action, this isn’t the book for you. The story takes its time, letting the characters and the world grow at their own pace. Without wanting to sound to pretentious, the experience of reading the book has the feeling of exploring the circus itself; leisurely admiring every aspect as it comes until you complete your circuit and finally understand the full layout.

While I was reading The Night Circus I never felt rushed. I never looked at the number of pages remaining to guess how much I had left. I felt completely immersed, to the point where I actually felt sad when I reached the end. If you allow it, Morgenstern’s writing will sweep you up and carry you off out of this world and into its own.