Books I read in April 2021
First Person Singular Haruki Murakami 5/5
Reading these Murakami stories is at once coming home to familiar ground and at the same time being taking in a new direction by each story. The stories deal with the usual Murakami topics, and each one is like a drink of fresh cool water after a long time thirsty. Written and translated with such skill, the stories are as thought-provoking and mind-expanding as you would expect, wonderful.
The Women of Troy by Pat Barker 5/5
I loved the continuation of the characters from Barker's previous novel The Silence of the Girls, and how this allows her to get further inside the thoughts and behaviours of the people we have previously met and seen in action.
The book explores the period of time after the Trojan War was won but before the victors could return home due to strong and supernatural winds that keep them on the island. This really interesting as not much can happen in a time of suspension, but this leaves so much room to explore motivations, reactions and character that makes the book a pleasure to read.
Seeing the story again from Briseis' view allows us to explore the forgotten and the ignored in the women whose families had been murdered who were expected to serve new masters, but it also explores some of the men - Calchas the out-of-favour priest, Pyrrhus the boy who feels he can never live up to his dead father's expectations, and the graciousness and wisdom of some of the older men.
This is a really involving read and one of the best bits is when Briseis seems to say that she lived into her 50s to see so much more - let's hope we get to hear about her next adventures very soon.
Threadneedle by Cari Thomas 5/5
An absolutely adorable read, I didn't want it to end and hope the author has set it up nicely as it seems for an awesome sequel. A coming-of-age story with many twists the book is beautifully written, the characters are relatable and enticing, and the plot keeps you on edge until the very end. Loved it - all the angst and elation of being a teenager run through with glitter and magic - don't miss this one!
The Beauty of Impossible Things Rachel Donohue 5/5
A very evocative book with a beautifully crafted atmosphere of longing and loss, the book centres on Natasha, a young teenager who has lived an isolated life with her unusual mother. There is some sense of shame around the mother that isn't fully explained, and her denial of Natasha's precognition skills sours their relationship. The book is told from a grown up Natasha's perspective as she looks back at what was a transformational summer in her life.
There are young teenagers living a seaside summer on the brink of possibility, spending long evenings on the beach, and a tender relationship between Natasha's mother and a paying guest. But there is also the threat of unusual activity and a terrible tragedy that impacts the whole town.
The older Natasha seems very sad and affected by that summer, which makes the account even more poignant. Rachel Donahue captures that teenage possibility so well it makes your grown-up heart ache with nostalgia - wonderful.
Circus of Wonders Elizabeth Macneal 5/5
Loved this story of Nell, a Victorian girl who is mocked for her different appearance then sold into the circus because of it by her drunken father. Nell's life takes a different turn than her past in a seaside village picking violets, and she sees the dangers while also looking to make the most of her new opportunities.
Jasper Jupiter and his adorable brother Toby try to take the limelight and dominate the story, but in the end it is Nell and her fellow female performers that find themselves centre stage and finally in control. All the glories of Victorian showmanship are there, the descriptions are so colourful and acute, and the ending almost broke my heart, it is written with such yearning and unspent passion.
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri 4/5
This is an intense meditation on the state of Japan made personal through the life and death experiences of Kazu, a migrant worker and ultimately homeless man in a society where he has ben pushed to the margins all his life. The writing and the translation convey the bare and unvarnished feelings of Kazu and the sorry state of a society and its consequences - very moving.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk 4/5
An exploration of themes of art, motherhood, family and responsibilities, Cusk offers a cold and unfeeling view of a life lived at the edge of things. M, the unnamed narrator, invites L, an artist to stay and then suffers the consequences to herself and her family. Finely written and thought-provoking, this book leaves you with more questions than answers.
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper 4/5
Amara is given her name after being sold into slavery by her mother - it is halfway between love and bitterness, and that sets the tone for a solid story that combines historical facts about Pompeii's brothels with a fictional account of what life must really have been like for women in Pompeii's heyday.
The settings are beautifully realised, the everyday brought to life through the many characters who inhabit the pages, showing different circumstances and standards for the men and women who live in Pompeii's brothel and those they come into contact with.
I found myself rooting for Amara from the start, and her story shows how she faces and overcomes her situation with a wit and intelligence that clearly wasn't expected of her. Another set of stories that builds up a picture of women's experience of the Roman Empire, educational and moving at the same time.
Double Blind by Edward St Aubyn 3/5
This is a difficult and ambitious book that just failed to hit the mark for me. The science bits can come over as undigested research and some of the characters border on caricature. The big ideas keep coming, the narrative is driven by multiple characters who have randomly changing priorities and the ending is strangely abrupt.
There is some lovely writing in between, the interplay of some of the characters and the descriptions of Howorth and its rewilding project. Some of the characters are just being played with, such as the innocent priest and the glamorous soft-porn dream that is Hope, and nowhere do we get real depth of character, especially in the stereotypical women.
Overall a challenging read that sparks some ideas but also some incredulity, and the conclusion after laboriously bringing all the characters together then missing an opportunity for closure was quite odd.
Highway Blue by Ailsa MacFarlane 3/5
A fleeting narrative of the underside of American life, a murder, a road trip and a young girl’s realisation of growing up and moving on. The story of Ann Marie and her onetime husband Cal’s reactive roadtrip away from trouble has interesting vignettes and occasional insights, but ultimately leaves you feeling as quickly empty as after eating too much fast food, and is as ultimately unsatisfying.
Thanks to the publishers & Netgalley for the chance to read ARCs for these titles. Murakami and Yu Miri I bought after publication.