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.

Recommendation: “Lost Empires” by JB Priestley

This is the second of J.B. Priestley’s novels I’ve read, and I am developing a definite love for his work.

Like The Good Companions – the previous Priestley novel I read – Lost Empires is a slice of life story set during the golden age of vaudeville and variety.The story is framed as the recollections of Richard Herncastle, an elderly painter, of the year he spent as the assistance and stage manager for his uncle, a successful magician on the variety circuit, before the outbreak of the Great War. The book read differently to more modern novels, and the plot isn’t set around some Big Adventure. The times and characters speak for themselves, portraying the tail ends of two worlds: The Golden Age of music hall variety, and English society before the destructive chaos of the War.

This isn’t to say that nothing happens, but rather that the event happen as they do in real life; as and when they come. Character come and go, in the way we expect in real life. Character grow no in sudden bursts of realisation and action, but over time and circumstances dictate.

But as much as you enjoy this beautiful written, soft depiction of a different time, when you reach the end you suddenly find yourself facing the sudden drop of “An Example Of It’s Time”. Throughout the book there are plenty of examples of what I came to think of as “patronising feminism”. Priestly clearly meant well, and was quite progressive for his time (Lost Empires was published in 1965). But that doesn’t free him from the prejudices of his time. You can’t say all his descriptions of women were complimentary, even if he meant them to be. We know better now. But while you can let these by, the ending is harder to swallow. The final climactic story consists of Richard and his uncle working to help a murderer flee the country because the girl he killed had been flirting with him for so long without any intention of sleeping with him that they don’t consider it fair for him to be arrested and executed for it, considering it the victims own fault that he snapped and killed her.

*Awkward cough*

So yeah, there’s that to be aware of. But as long as you can put that aside – like I said, this needs to be put aside as “And Example Of Its Time” and that the author had no malicious feelings other than the standard unconscious prejudices of the society he lived in – then this is a wonderful novel to sit back and enjoy.

Recommendation: The Johnny Maxwell books

I find it strange how there are some of Terry Pratchett’s books that tend to get forgotten. Maybe people have come to blend him and the Discworld so much that his books outside that series don’t get the same recognition? Or maybe they just aren’t aware of them? But, as a whole, I believe his children’s books don’t get the recognition they deserve.

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The Johnny Maxwell books are examples of these. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996) tell three separate stories about Johnny Maxwell, a boy who seems to have a ability to see through the world into something more; whether it be entering a computer game while he sleeps to save the aliens from the players, speaking with the ghosts of the dead to save their graveyard from destruction, or travelling back in time to the Second World War.

I’ve always felt that Pratchett had a real knack for children’s books. He was able to take the ideas and themes found in all his work and streamline them for a younger audience. Rereading them now I find it a little odd and oversimplified, which is maybe why they are overlooked, but as a child I remember them being incredibly real. They felt like adult books to me. I was already reading the Discworld novels at this point, but I know now that a lot of the details went over my head.

I prefer the Bromeliad Trilogy (Truckers, Diggers, and Wings) (a separate series, but there are enough connections to assume these two series are in the same universe) but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Johnny Maxwell books. If you’re a fan of Pratchett but not given these ones a go, I highly recommend it. 

For the record, Johnny and the Bomb is my favourite.

One final point: having been introduced to these book through the audio book versions I cannot read them without hearing the words in Tony Robinson’s voice. I don’t get that with the Discworld books. There’s just something about these three that sticks in his voice. Weird how that happens. 

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett begins to display the signs of acute schizophrenia, her family’s life begins to fall apart. The doctors are unable to stop her illness spreading, and when her father loses his job the family is soon running out of money, patience, and hope. Soon they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, and agree to participate in a reality television show in order to fix their worries.

Fifteen years later Merry, Marjorie’s littler sister, recalls the events she lived through as a child. As she does so, painful memories and forgotten secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book. I just didn’t love it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good. The characters are solid. The structure is interesting and the ending, while not mind blowing, is at least interesting and well set up.

The exorcism is a old an favourite sub-genre in horror. Tremblay is aware of that, and works it into the story. He is skilful in the way he makes the reader aware that he knows this isn’t a groundbreaking premise. It’s just that after he’s done this he doesn’t then add anything new.

I went into this book expecting more of the conflict between Marjorie’s illness and the lengths the family went to cope. How both religion and the media seemed like the only options available to them, despite how obvious seems that neither was going to help. In the end it felt as if Tremblay didn’t commit enough in either direction. It needed to commit more to this, or throw itself fully into the standard exorcism plot.

It’s still a solid read, and you could find a lot worse out there. Tremblay is a good writer – aside from some very clunky dialogue in the ‘present day’ sections – and I’ll probably keep an eye out for his other work. I was just left a little underwhelmed by the plot.

Summer Holiday reading

Last week I went on holiday! Five days in sunny (or at least warm) southern Spain. My last couple of holidays were either spent sightseeing, or with friends who had their child with them, which meant I didn’t get as much sitting around doing nothing done. But this year, other than one day to visit the Alhambra – which is beautiful and should be on anyone’s list if they ever go near Grenada – we had nothing to do by drink, sunbathe, and read in the sun.

I have to admit I was overconfident and packed far more books than I managed to actually read, and also had to follow tradition and pick something up at the airport, but these are what I got through.

“A God In Ruins”

I can’t remember who recommend Kate Atkinson to me. I know if was someone I met at the York Festival of Writing last year, but whoever it was I owe a dept. This is only the second of her books I’ve read, and she’s gone straight onto the list of authors who make me wonder why I bother trying to ape their talent. Her writing is so elegant and the story so intricately woven around itself. If I can ever write anything with such a perfect mastery of plot and time, I will die a happy man.

“Locke and Key”

I don’t why I had the urge to reread these, but the timing fitted perfectly for the trip. And I still love them. Joe Hill ready gets what ‘Lovecraftian’ is supposed to mean, and the art fits the setting perfectly. I’ve read more of Joe Hill’s work since I first discovered these, and can safely say his graphic novels are better than his novels. I think it’s because the medium of graphic novels prevents the bloated overwriting that Hill shares with his father.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

I’ve not seen the TV series, but since it came out this has been a book I’ve had a lot of people recommend and so when the book I was looking for the in the airport wasn’t available, I decided I’d pick this one up instead. I’m so incredibly happy I did. I’m so far only a little over half way through, and the writing and structure is just exquisite. Margaret Atwood manages to perfectly tease out character, setting, and backstory in such a beautiful way. And I can see why it’s resonating with so many people at the moment. It’s scary how possible the bits I’ve read so far seem.

So, has everyone else got their holiday reading lists up and ready yet? What have you got lined up for the summer?

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.