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Friday, 30 May 2014

From The Fatherland With Love by Ryu Murakami

Over the past few months I have repeatedly made weak apologies for the fact that things have been quiet on the blog, and today I'm glad to be sharing one of the reasons why that has been the case. For a while now my reading time has been largely consumed by this epic tale of alternative dystopian reality and its huge cast of characters, each with their own intricate back story. It's been completely immersive and has left me with little time or inclination to read much else, and now that it's finished I'm left trying to pick apart its many facets to try and explain coherently everything I loved about it. Where to start?

The plot is in equal parts absurd and chillingly plausible; the fallout from the economic crisis has well and truly shaken up the global political landscape, the dollar has completely collapsed, and it's a case of every country for himself. Japan is suffering a steep decline, effectively abandoned by former allies such as the USA. The country finds homelessness and unemployment on the rise, with vast expanses of land turned into shanty towns of citizens with nowhere else to go. Seeing an opportunity to profit from their neighbour's vulnerability, North Korea launches an invasion - initially a small band of highly trained officers take over Fukuoka baseball stadium, but before long troops have arrived in their thousands. There are small undercurrents of resistance among the local residents, but how can they stand a chance against the full weight of the North Korean army?

This is an incredibly complex book. Murakami has thoroughly explored the minutiae of this alarming situation from every aspect. We see the Japanese government as they bumble and panic to try and decide on a response to the situation that is neither too weak nor too offensive. We learn about the effects that the invasion has on small businesses, on healthcare provision, on the local media. I was amazed to realise how easy it might be for a bunch of crooks to take advantage of social security numbers and information held in goverment records to completely take over a community.

Perhaps the most interesting for me was to read about the attitudes and experiences of the North Korean soldiers on arriving in this alien environment. It was fascinating to consider how things we take for granted in a Westernised society might seem totally bizarre to an outsider. For example, a complementary packet of tissues given away to customers of a taxi company is seen as unbelievably decadent to the occupying troops, as are the mass-produced white t-shirts and jeans that line the shelves of the Fukuoka shops. I found myself reading about the harsh upbringings that these soldiers had endured and feeling quite sympathetic towards them despite the brutality they unleash on the defenceless Japanese community. I'm not sure how realistic a picture Murakami has painted of life in North Korea - how much can we truly be sure lies behind the facade that they present to the rest of the world? - but it definitely made me pause for thought.

I really hope this doesn't make it sound like a dry political analysis because it most definitely isn't! One of the things I loved most about it was this feisty, punkish spirit behind the narrative. It's odd to describe it this way, because the premise is so disturbingly convincing and really just plain scary, but it is a fun book and Murakami's attention to quirky details repeatedly put a smile on my face. It is as fast-paced as a bestselling thriller in places, but precise and thoughtful in others. It has been a long time since I've read such an intelligent novel. I feel it's really shaken me out of a bit of a reading slump and put me in the mood to seek out more fresh, innovative stories.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Kiszka & Kershaw series by Anya Lipska

There can never be enough crime fiction sitting on my shelves for my liking - it's what I turn to again and again when I can't decide what I want to read. I'm nearly always in the mood for a mystery. So it's always nice to discover a new series that I can start from the beginning and watch the characters develop over time. Recently I've been enjoying the first two installments of Anya Lipska's London-based series and getting to know Kiszka and Kershaw.

Janusz Kiszka is one of the most well-connected individuals in London's Polish community - he knows everybody's business and there's not much that slips under his radar. He dabbles in building projects and business deals here and there, but also engages in a little private investigative work when it suits him. In Where The Devil Can't Go, Kiszka is approached by his priest to track down a missing young waitress. Over the course of his investigation he crosses paths with Natalie Kershaw, a young detective constable who is looking into the case of a Jane Doe washed up on the banks of the Thames. Each is as stubborn as the other, and the pair find themselves at loggerheads as they try not to admit that a little teamwork might be just what's needed to get to the bottom of both of their problems.

In Death Can't Take A Joke, Kiszka happens across DC Kershaw again, in a more professional capacity this time. She is investigating the case of an unidentified Polish man who has jumped from a central London tower block and needs Kiszka's unique insight into the community. Janusz is reluctant to take on the task as he is otherwise occupied with digging up dirt on a nasty Ukrainian gangster who he suspects has murdered one of his closest friends. But he ultimately relents, and the two end up travelling to Poland together to uncover the answers they both need.

Janusz Kiszka is a really great protagonist and lends these books a great depth. It is refreshing to encounter such a complex character in a police procedural rather than your average world-weary middle-aged constable. He is a man of many contradictions - a burly brute, and an impressive scientific intellect. He is charming and chivalrous, yet holds very old-fashioned views and can be really quite dismissive of women. He has strong ties to the Catholic church, and nevertheless behaves in a manner that is contrary to any moral code you could imagine.

Kershaw, on the other hand, is a little less memorable. It is interesting to consider the difficulty that a young woman must face having to work in such a male-dominated environment as the Metropolitan Police, and the professional dilemmas that arise when one's boss is a misogynistic pig, but I found it difficult to truly care about her relationship difficulties or her wistful childhood memories. I definitely found her character to develop over the two books, though, and have faith that it will continue to do so as the series progresses.

Lipska's novels are fast-paced and tightly plotted, and kept me on my toes at all times. I was totally gripped. What I really loved was the insight she provides into the immigrant experience in the UK. It was particularly interesting to read about the factors that have driven people to leave their homes, the countries they love, and seek a new life elsewhere. For someone like myself who was born in the late 1980s it is easy to forget just how much the political landscape of Eastern Europe has been transformed in very recent history. It isn't something that I was ever taught in history lessons at school and so I only  had a vague awareness of these events on the fringes of my consciousness. It was enlightening to read about Kiszka's experiences in the Solidarity movement and the difficult choices he had to make on behalf of his country.

I'm looking forward to reading more from Anya Lipska, and I can see that this series has the potential to become a real favourite of mine.

Many thanks to the publishers, Harper Collins UK, for providing copies of both of these books for review via Netgalley.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene

A few weeks ago that most curious of beasts dropped through my letterbox...an unsolicited book. A package dropped through the door from Real Readers. The name didn't ring any bells and I racked my brains trying to remember who these people might be to be sending me books through the post. A quick search through my e-mail inbox revealed that I had signed up to this programme over a year ago and not heard anything from them since. What a lovely surprise to received something out of the blue!

"Real Readers gives you the chance to read and review books before they are published, comment on cover designs and feedback on specific topics to publishers"

Arthur Winthrop is a headmaster who comes from a long line of headmasters. Running the prestigious Lancaster School in Vermont is in his blood. He is relentlessly proper, so it seems inconceivable that he should ever be found wandering the paths of Central Park naked in the snow - but that is in fact where we first meet him. How did he get there? Delving into his recent past, it becomes apparent that Arthur's sanity began to crumble around the same time that he embarked upon an ill-advised affair with one Betsy Pappas, a teenage student under his charge. But as the story unravels we begin to wonder what other skeletons Arthur's closet might be concealing and whether we can trust his version of events at all.

The synopsis suggests that this might be yet another of these fast-paced, twisty psychological thrillers about a husband and wife with secrets. And while I do enjoy books in that mould, I was delighted to find that Thomas Christopher Greene has written something quite special and different. The first half had me entirely gripped to a degree that is comparable to any bestselling thriller you care to mention, yet it is written in a lovely steady and precise prose that lends it a very literary feel. Then a bombshell drops halfway through that gives the reader a completely different perspective, and it becomes apparent that this is a novel with great depth that sensitively deals with such weighty issues as loss, marital difficulties, mental health problems and parent-child relationships.

I don't want to give anything else away so will leave it at that - it's a thoughtful and surprising read which is well worth your time. I'm keeping it short and sweet, but it's not often that I sit down to write a review and can't think of anything at all that I didn't like!

And how about that cover, eh? Remind you of anything?

Are any of you members of the Real Readers programme, and how do you like it? If this book was anything to go by, I hope it won't be another 18 months until I hear from them again! Only time will tell...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

One of the pitfalls of reading on an e-reader I've found it that it's easy to start a book without realising how long it is and what you might be getting yourself into. That's what happened to me recently when I fancied rushing through a no-brainer, easy thriller that wouldn't be too taxing on the grey cells. My eyes scrolled down the long list of titles on the Kindle and settled upon I Am Pilgrim. Perfect, no? A fast-paced tale of espionage should prove the perfect escapism? But after realising it was taking ages for the percentage points to add up as I read, I checked the page count...703...that'll explain it then. It turned out to be much meatier than expected.

He goes by many names, but Pilgrim will do. One of the most highly skilled spies the USA has ever known, he has travelled the world, plotted, double-crossed and killed for his country and now finds himself retired before the age of 40, having used his experiences to quite literally write THE book on criminal investigation. Retired, that is, until he hears from an old friend that a murder has been committed in a seedy New York City hotel. But this is not an everyday case. The murderer seems to have used every trick in Pilgrim's own textbook to cover up their tracks.

What follows is an epic sprint across continents whereby Pilgrim uses every trick in his arsenal not only to get to the bottom of the NYC murder but also, y'know, to save the entire world from a catastrophic biological terrorist threat. The plot is multifaceted and will make you think far more widely around events than your average spy story does. What makes a man give up any semblance of a normal life to dedicate himself to go undercover in defence of his country? What makes a child from a conventional background grow up to plot extreme acts of violence on an international scale? How exactly could one man in the Middle East orchestrate a plan to breach the insurmountable defences of United States security forces? It's fast-paced, dramatic, and chilling as you consider how the events described might well be possible in reality.

While the plot is undeniably gripping and complex, this novel is by no means flawless. The whole thing could have been a little bit tighter and more polished, and yes, slightly shorter. The timeline of events in relation to September 11th, 2001, was very muddled and confusing. And I encountered one too many silly errors and poorly-researched facts for my liking. For example, referring to Turkey as 'the Far East', or telling us that one of Pilgrim's injuries resulted in a bone that was 'fractured, but not broken'. The devil's in the details and this kind of mistake really should get picked up during the editing process.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the book has an incredibly patriotic slant which can be heavy-handed at times. Every single foreigner in the book (and not only the Middle Eastern ones) is portrayed as corrupt, stupid, or both. I ultimately found this to wear a little thin.

I've read a few books recently that have made me think "sure, this is great, it's exciting and dramatic, but I bet it would be amazing as a movie". I had the exact same feeling after finishing I Am Pilgrim, only this time I'm thinking: "Terry Hayes is a screenwriter...why didn't he just write a movie?". I can't help but wonder if that medium would have gone further to really do justice to the plot. I did enjoy the overall experience of reading it, but the writing didn't hold up to too much scrutiny. In any case, this is a solid and fast-paced spy thriller that would be a welcome addition to anybody's beach bag if you're after something that will sweep you away without requiring too much concentration.

I received a copy of I Am Pilgrim for review from the team at Transworld Books via Netgalley.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Top Ten book covers I'd frame as pieces of art

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic, brought to you by The Broke and The Bookish, is a feast for the eyes - they've asked us all to think long and hard about our favourite book covers, the ones that you'd be happy to enlarge and have hanging in a frame in pride of place on your wall. I love this topic! I've spent far too long clicking away on Google image search results looking for my favourite editions of my favourite books. It's so fascinating to see how the cover artwork changes over the years, or how a novel can be illustrated so differently from one country to the next.

What amazed me most was the number of absolutely stunning original re-designs of covers of some of my favourite classic stories that can be found on the online portfolios and websites of illustrators and graphic designers. I stumbled across some gorgeous interpretations that I would be delighted to display in my home or have sitting proudly on my bookshelves. How about this one, by BumbleExpress via DeviantArt
Or this one here by illustrator Thomas Walker?

You have to wonder why our local bookshops are filled with identikit stock images of pictures of women with their heads cropped out of the frame, or silhouettes walking into the sunset, when there is obviously such a wealth of talent and innovation to be found in the fields of illustration and graphic design. This article from Book Riot about tired book cover trends was originally published in December 2012 but unfortunately still rings true today!

Ultimately, it was too hard for me to choose a top ten - so here are just a selection of ten covers that I loved and would be proud to display in a frame in my home!