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Two Reviews

2017 might not have been my most productive reading year (in terms of pleasure reading at least), but I did manage to read some wonderful books that will remain with me for a good while. I will talk to you about two of them today, a Japanese “classic” crime novel and an American collection of short stories, both of which I immensely enjoyed and made my 2017 a bit more tolerable.

The Master Key by Togawa Masako **** 36396709

A very well-crafted and quirky mystery novel which hooked me from the very beginning. I really enjoyed how the different stories of each character all came together in the end and the mystery kept being unveiled until the very last page. All the characters were so unique and well-rounded and the story of each individual was also compelling on its own. It was definitely refreshing, a mystery very unlike the usual ones and definitely one which deserves everyone’s attention.

Although there was not a main detective in charge of solving the case and the structure of the novel is vastly different from similar Western crime novels of the time (this one was published in 1962 in Japanese), there is something about this mystery that strongly reminds me of Agatha Christie. I can’t say if Togawa is Christie’s Japanese equivalent, or even if such an assumption is fair, but I enjoyed reading The Master Key tremendously and I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks ****

35011288I usually am very cautious and shy away from books written by celebrities – no matter how much I like or admire the celebrity, more often than not the books they publish are yet another publicity stunt to make the number in their bank account even bigger. Needless to say I was taken aback when I heard Tom Hanks, one of my most respected actors, was releasing a short story collection.

Despite my initial skepticism, I have to admit I truly enjoyed this collection. While not all stories were my cup of tea, and some felt rather dull or without a specific point (as it happens with most short story collections), the vast majority were stories that made me smile, brought tears to my eyes and offered me a wonderful experience. Tom Hanks is a truly gifted writer and I didn’t expect his prose to feel so natural and adeptly crafted.

The tone and voice of the stories were inherently American and the characters and plots felt like they jumped out of Tom Hanks’s most successful ’90s films. Although I’m not American, they managed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for an era well gone and for a certain innocence and naivete of people which is scarcely found today. I also enjoyed the fact that some characters were recurring in later stories, which made them feel even more realistic to the reader, as a different aspect of their lives or perspective was offered in each story they appeared. Overall, a wonderful collection of stories which made me wish there will be more to come.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them? 🙂

Both books were provided to me by their respective publishers via NetGalley.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote

The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams

Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013.  (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.)  I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it.  I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.

The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed.  Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.

The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm.  Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD.  He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’.  The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value.  Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.

Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.

The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern.  Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last.  I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot.  McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero.  A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life.  I think he had a very good life.  He had a better life than most people do, certainly.  He was doing what he wanted to do…  His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…  It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.  And if you love something, you’re going to understand it.  And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.

Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known.  Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’.  He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.

I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters.  The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound.  The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.

Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it.  I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be.  I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.

Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  It is a decision which you will not regret.  Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.

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‘Rooms’ by Lauren Oliver ****

‘Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide – with cataclysmic results.’

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I adore books about old houses and secrets, as well as good ghost stories, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms was therefore quite an obvious choice for me to pick up. I’m so pleased that Oliver has made the transition, if a temporary one, to adult literature; the only other book of hers which I have read to date is Before I Fall, which I enjoyed, despite young adult literature not really being my thing.

I very much liked the structure within Rooms, revolving as it did around a series of different rooms in a grand old American house. Each character was followed in turn, and the way in which only the ‘ghosts’ of the house used first person perspectives gave a really interesting overview, which had quite a lot of depth to it. I would not personally term this a fantasy or paranormal novel; it is really rather human, and makes one think about the strength of history and family. Yes, there are ghosts, but there is an overriding sense of realism to the whole. The prose is both effective and poetic, and everything about it works.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

9781911332251Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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