Sunday, August 31, 2014

For Review: The Suicide ~ Mark SaFranko

Following my review of Mark SaFranko's Dirty Works, I was asked if I would be interested in reading his latest novel, The Suicide. Mostly, the title and the author were enough for me to agree to read and review this. Noir fiction isn't something I read often, but it is a genre I like to dabble in now and then, provided that it's written well and that the plot isn't ridiculous. The Suicide fits that bill.

Vincenti is a detective in New York who finds himself attached to a case dealing with a woman who has fallen to her death from a window. It should just be a 'straight forward' case of figuring out if it was accident, suicide, or murder, but when he sees a picture of the young woman, it stirs up uncomfortable memories that he can't quite place. On top of that, his marriage is falling apart, so he's struggling between being a good cop/husband/father and friend to an ex-detective transwoman. While the shortcomings of various parts of his life seem to be unconnected at first, the novel pulls the threads together towards a conclusion that links them together.

What I enjoy about noir fiction is the way that the stories are constructed - full of red herrings, little clues for the reader to think about, distractions along the way. SaFranko introduces most of the characters in ways that could suggest that they might have something to do with what is going on. There's the cause of death that the reader is trying to figure out, but there are also some dark truths to Vincenti's past that are kept secret for much of the novel too. Double the things to figure out. The Suicide is less about concerete clues, however, than piecing together the psychological factors and issues surrounding Vincenti and the people he mets through the case. When the novel reaches its reveal it isn't necessarily earth shattering, but it's arrived at through interesting means that do fit the pieces together.

The Suicide is quite different from the other SaFranko books I've read, but that's something I really appreciate. Perhaps the genre makes things read differently but, while admittedly I'm not familiar with his other work, it's great to see authors thinking 'Hey, this is the story I'm going to write this time, and even if it is different, I want to write it anyway.' That said, the dark and darkly humorous side to his writing was definitely still there, and it was this that made the novel enjoyable to read. While Vincenti may not have been the most inspiring or original of detectives, I still liked him, and wanted to see him figure out the case, and his own troubles. The double strand of psychological puzzling was interesting and unsettling to follow.

With thanks to Honest Publishing for providing a copy for review: 2014;
Paperback;
279 pages.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Meeting Murakami: EIBF 2014

Sunday 24 August was incredibly special for me - I got to speak, face to face, with a big idol, a real love of mine: Haruki Murakami. I've reviewed several of his novels on my blog, and I'm such a fan. On the day tickets went on sale, my brother and I were online from 8.00am, and I also at one point had my phone on hold for 45 minutes. Neither of us got tickets. Then one day I got a message from a friend offering a ticket as she could no longer make it. When I bought the ticket from her, it was hard not to hyperventilate or cry in my excitement. Much the same could be said as I stood in line 45 minutes before the event.

I've never seen the staff of EIBF trying so hard to pack so many people into one place. Lucky me, I got a pretty good seat, and eagerly awaited the event to begin. Soon enough, out came Haruki Murakami in a tshirt, hoodie, and plaid shirt. Throughout the event, Murkami was thoughtful, engaging, and funny - not always easy to do in a second language, I'd imagine. I made three pages worth of notes of things that Murkami said, and thought I'd share some of my favourites.

On his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (review coming soon), Murakami said he wanted to write about the sentiment of being hurt when expelled from a group, and the ideas of isolation and depression that follow. These are hurtful feelings, he said, that leave a scar and stay.

Murkami's novels have romantic relationships involved in them, and these are often the centre of the story. He talked about Plato's theory of men and women originally being one, but being split in half. The idea here is that man and woman spend their lives looking for the person who is literally their other half (where the phrase comes from). Important to Murakami is the idea of a man searching to find who that woman is, and this certainly makes sense as a theme to the novels I've read (almost all of them).

Have some quotes:

"I think of myself as an engineer, not an artist or a creator. Am I a good tinkerer? Yes."

"I have never had a time when I couldn't write. If I don't want to write, I don't write."

"It is what the story decides, not I."

The conversation turned to physical strength, and Murakami's love of running. He talked about his work as a translator, claiming to do that as a hobby, just for fun. 


A part of the discussion that really interested me was Murakami describing how his novels are received in Asia, particularly Japan, in comparison to Europe, or America.  In the Western side of the world, Murakami claims that his readers are more analytical, and think about his novels much more logically than in Asia. Sometimes, I'm probably a little guilty of this, because Murakami's books often bring out the philosopher part of my brain. In Japan, however, the readers accept the changes of worlds/times/realities because they're next to the 'other' world all the time. Unlike Orpheus, Murakami said, because he had to go through all sorts of tasks to get to the other world. This mentality towards fiction makes a lot of sense, given the Japanese fiction I've read, and the several many Japanese films I've seen. Worlds blend together more here, and that is certainly true of Murakami's work.

To round off the event with audience questions, Murakami facepalmed at being asked which director he'd have to translate his novels into film, but his answer of David Lynch sounded about right to me. Finally, the conversation finished with comments about seaweed on Jura.

In an hour of Murakami talking, I took away a lot as both a reader and a writer. At the book signing, I blurted something about how overwhelmed I was, and thanked him for writing his books.
The signed book is now my prized possession. Really, I'm very grateful to have had the chance to go to this event - Murakami is deserving of all the admiration he receives.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

For Review: Middlesex ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

That this book still had a 3 for 2 Waterstones sticker when I took it off the bookshelf says something about how long I've had it waiting there. At 500+ pages with tiny script, I wanted to wait until I had the time to enjoy the book properly. By the end of my summer break, I had 10 days left, and I thought that this would do for that space of time. However, I ended up reading Middlesex over those ten days, plus then some, and read other things in between.

In fact, the book had been on my shelf long enough that I'd more or less forgotten what it was actually about. Middlesex is narrated by Calliope (Cal) who tells the story of the events leading to her birth as a hermaphrodite. The tale is not just of the history of her parents, but also her grandparents and their life in Greece. Suitably, then, Middlesex is narrated as a kind of Greek epic - lots of exposition, coincidences drawn to, romance, war, and tragedy. The first parts of the novel are about Cal's grandparents and their journey from war-torn Greece to America, and how they met and fell in love (one of the better love stories of the novel). They then have to live in work in their new country, where they give birth to Cal's father Milton. He, in turn, does his best to woo Tessie, and they marry and give birth to Cal. Here, for me, is where the novel really kicks into pace.

Middlesex took its time, I felt. The pacing was at places very slow, which is why I was able to put it down, read something else, and come back to it. Reading the novel, therefore, took much longer than I'd thought it would. But as Calliope narrates his/her own life, the story moves along at more enjoyable pace. Born into the world as a girl, the family doctor notices nothing out of the ordinary with Calliope, and so she grows up in dresses, at a girl's school, with girl friends, and the expectations of being a girl growing up. Puberty is a real source of struggle for Calliope, who has to deal with all the girls around her moving through adolescence, while she never gets her period, or develops breasts. Her romantic and sexual interests are only with her female friends and classmates, greating further anguish for her. Eugenides doesn't shy away from physical feeling, particularly surrounding sexual organs and genitalia - the sense that Calliope feels that something is very strange and very wrong stems from her understanding of her own body, and how it relates to others. It's only in an accident that another doctor discovers the truth about Calliope.

And here is part four of the novel, where at age fifteen Calliope becomes Cal, and allows himself to identify as male. He runs away to begin a new life in California, encountering problems not only with money and shelter, but with the various people he hitch hikes with along the way. The novel begins with birth, and ends with death, but also with a degree of hope for Cal, who has found it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of romantic relationship his entire life. That said, I did want to know how Cal grew from fifteen and awkward, to a self-assured and apparently successful forty year old, but those were gaps that weren't filled.

The chunks of the novel that dealt with Calliope and Cal were the most compelling for me. Otherwise, what Eugenides does best is describe romance, and everything that comes with it. Whether it be Desdemona and Lefty, Milton and Tessie, or the narrator's own longings, Eugenides really knows how to capture love, lust, and all the tumultuous and titillating feelings that come with that. Despite the premise of the novel, the overriding theme of Middlesex is love. Gender identity certainly has its part to play, but the most important and the most beautiful parts of the novel deal longing for requited love.

Middlesex is a rather sprawling novel, covering a variety of themes and characters, and while the pace and page time of particular sections slowed down my reading of the novel, I nevertheless enjoyed much of it. I imagine Middlesex is the kind of novel where different readers might take different things from it, and some scenes might be more memorable to some than others. (For me, kissing practise and near death in a swimming pool stands out.) As it's such a large text, this is likely to happen, but Middlesex offers many moments and characters for the reader to care about, and to remember.

Bloomsbury, 2003;
Paperback;
529 pages.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For Review: Butter ~ Erin Lange

Butter is a morbidly obese teenager (weighing around 30 stone in UK measurements - I had to Google it) who decides to commit suicide by eating one final, fatal meal over webcam. His obesity is the cause of upset and ridicule for Butter, and he finds himself marginalised in high school, unable to join in with groups of friends, or meeting girls. Meanwhile, he is an extremely talented saxophone player, though he plays alone in his room, and he is also in an online relationship with a girl at school. Only, he hides behind a persona of someone who is much more popular, and much more attractive. The novel follow Butter's resolve to kill himself but, as he makes the decision, he finds himself surrounded by more friends and opportunities than ever before.

Much of the novel follows the 'will he, won't he' surrounding his impending suicide. He changes his mind every now and then, vaguely. For myself, though, I never really felt like Butter actually wanted to die. Even during some of the slightly more intense moments, or the times he felt most down, there was never any feeling that he did want to commit suicide. Perhaps Lange meant it to read that way, but I thought the dilemma would have been more compelling if at some points I genuinely believed that it was a course of action that Butter might actually take. Mostly, Butter seemed to crave attention, and that's exactly what he got - sometimes in good ways, otherwise in bad ways. Pity seemed to be something that initially he didn't want, but by the end of the novel, he seemed to be quite pleased by it.

Butter was an interesting novel, but I wasn't as invested in it as I wanted to be. While I loved the concept of the book, there were places that it just didn't go. For example, no one reaches 30 stone without reason, and I wanted to know more about how Butter got to that state, but that was never mentioned. Equally, Butter's relationship with his parents was the most detailed and authentic of the novel, but while I wanted more revealed about how his mother treated him and fed him, that wasn't there either. There was a lack of reason to many things, and ultimately I think that's why Butter felt as though it had something missing.

There's a thoughtful and interesting story being told in Butter, raising plenty of issues that Lange hadn't consciously planted into the novel (so she said last night in an excellent discussion with Nicola Morgan at EIBF). Lange wanted to portray teenage life as it is, and I do think that Butter faithfully presents that, asking many questions about growing up in the modern world as the story unfolds.

Faber, 2013;
Paperback;
343 pages.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Subtle Melodrama on Instagram

Instagram wasn't one of those social media sites that I wanted to join straight away. Partially, this was because I had a really naff phone that couldn't take decent pictures. Relatively speaking, this is still very much the case, but I can actually use it now. I got suckered into Instagram after seeing many posts people were putting on Twitter and Facebook, and it acts like a mini instant blog for many people. Other than that, Instragram is great because I can look at pretty things all day.

So I joined Instagram.

Mostly, I take pictures of books. I like to take photos of my current reads, or anything new that falls through the post box. Sometimes I put up pictures of my nails, or cupcakes, or other things of interest. 

Like this:




Or this:



So if you Instagram, come along and join me - following people who post pretty things (especially books and/or cats) is great fun!

Join me on Instagram! :3

Thursday, August 07, 2014

For Review: Post Office ~ Charles Bukowski

Bukowski is a name that many people mention when they talk about big American authors that they love. Until just a few days ago, it wasn't a name I'd ever read. I can't quite remember how I decided to add Post Office to my TBR, but I suspect it was a review I read somewhere. But I added Post Office to my list so long ago that I'd actually forgotten what it was about (other than including a post office) and what kind of book it was.

Happily, Post Office is a funny book. I really needed this in my life - a break from sad books with death as a focus. Henry Chinaski works at the post office doing jobs that he really dislikes, but that he needs to do to pay the bills. Beyond work, Chinaski enjoys betting on horses, getting drunk, and he struggles to maintain meaningful relationships with women. As a blurb, that might not sound as anything too unusual, especially with the kinds of books that I tend to pick up and read. What is different about Post Office is that it doesn't fall into the dark doom and gloom of many other American novels of similar content.

While there are darker moments, Post Office moves with a lilt that is both fun and funny. The narrator sees the humour in his horrible life situations, and carries on regardless. The tone is stoic, insightful, and funny. Rather than being depressed with his life, Chinaski seeks to find ways to alleviate the everyday boredom, whether that's by marrying rich young women, or taking time off to persue a career as a gambler.

Just a small debut, but Post Office was a much needed respite from some of the more heart-wrenching material I've been reading lately. Again, that isn't to say that Bukowski doesn't include any sad or tender moments, but these aren't what defines the narrator, at least not in a way that is overtly negative and bleak. Definitely keen to venture into more Bukowski - what should I read next?

Originally pubished 1979, this edition 2009;
Virgin Books;
Paperback;
160 pages.

Monday, August 04, 2014

For Review: A Separate Peace ~ John Knowles

John Knowles wasn't a name that I knew of before I was approached to review this book. A Separate Peace, when you look it up, comes with a lot of great praise from some great people. Still, I'd never heard of it. The novel has never had a release in the UK until now, and it is a shame that it seems to have taken so long. Better late than never, though.

Set at a boys' boarding school, A Separate Peace is a story of growing up set at the time of World War II. Gene narrates his friendship with his best friend Phineas. As he reflects on their relationship, he wonders if they are close friends, enemies, or rivals, or perhaps even a mixture of all of these. Gene does well at school, excelling at his studies, while meanwhile Phineas is a sporting super star, breaking records and winning awards. That, and Phineas seems capable of charming everyone around him, including his school masters. He is charming and daring, and always the centre of attention. This is where the antagonism between Gene and Phineas begins. One day, Phineas breaks his leg, and their friendship is changed completely.

The power shift that happens between the two boys drives the novel on at just the right place (when the reader has perhaps had enough reading about the relationship dynamics between the two). There were points where I thought that Gene's insights changed too quickly, or too suddenly, but that might just be the way the teenage mind moves, constantly wondering about relations with others, and where he stands in comparison. Ultimately, though, their friendship is compelling in the way that it is so tumultous. Given the natures of each of the boys, it was difficult to tell how they might react. Gene is revealed to be more thick-skinned and, perhaps, cold and aloof than thought at first. Meanwhile Phineas has his entire outlook on the world tilted by his inability to excell in sports as he used to.

A Separate Peace has been hailed as an American classic, and it's easy to see why. A story of its time, perhaps, including how America took part in World War II and a look at how its young people responded. The boys talk about the desire of enlisting, of the greatness that might come with war, while the reality of the situation presents itself through a friend. In all, the war crucially changes how Gene and Phineas feel about the world, and their own responsibilities of their place in it. It was interesting to see how World War II wasn't just a backdrop setting to the novel, but instead played in important part in the lives of the characters.

Knowles might have been unknown to me before now, but it's encouraging to know that A Separate Peace will be reach audiences further than the America that made it so well regarded. Knowles has written the novel with a beautiful lyricism throughout, but without being clumsy or dense. Tender and heartfelt, A Separate Peace is a coming of age novel that leaves an impression after reading.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy.
First published 1959, first published in the UK August 2014;
Paperback;
270 pages.