Book Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar – David Grossman (Translated by Jessica Cohen)

I’d wanted to read this book since hearing an interview with the translator, Jessica Cohen.  The book, written in Hebrew, won the International Man Booker Prize 2017.  The prize is split equally between the author and the translator, recognising the skill and contribution of both.

The story is set over one evening in a comedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya.  The comedian is Dovaleh G,  an ageing performer who seems to have retained his ‘edgy’ image.  His painfully thin appearance makes us suspect that he is suffering from an illness.

The narrator is a very old acquaintance of Dovaleh G, a former friend whom he has not seen for decades.  Dovaleh tracks him down and pleads with him to watch this particular performance.  The acquaintance, a retired Judge, agrees to go but regrets it almost immediately.  He tries to leave but Dovaleh embarrasses him into staying.  The Judge then shoves “handfuls of nuts into my mouth and grind them like they were his bones.”  A vivid line.

Dovaleh builds up some rapport with the audience.  He is endearing, insulting, frustrating, violent and unpredictable.  Jokes are followed by random monologues and self-harm.

Dovaleh picks on a small lady who does not appear to be enjoying the show.  It turns out that she knew him when he was young and says that he used to be a ‘good boy’.  This is the catalyst for the disintegration of Dovaleh and the show.   Outraged audience members leave, but some remain as they cannot resist “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The comedy routine turns into a monologue on a painful incident in Dovaleh’s early life when he was faced with terrible circumstances, life-changing uncertainty, cowardice and indifference.

The writing in the translation is compelling.  When Dov is remembering a particular member he is described as having “Sleepwalking terror on his face: he’s there.  All of him is there.”  It’s a line that took me to the heard of the story, I could picture him and felt like an audience member, needing to watch but feeling guilty for doing so when a man is falling apart.

This is an unusual story of a childhood tragedy,  decades old guilt and confession told in a setting where you’d least expect it.

Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.





Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury 2015)

This beautiful looking book is the first novel of Natasha Pulley.  

Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraphy operator for the Home Office in an alternative Victorian London.  It’s not quite a steampunk version of London, more of a clockwork Capital.  Nathaniel is known as Thaniel (apparently his Dad was Nat) and has synesthesia; he sees sounds as colours and vice-versa.

Whilst working the night-shift Thaniel (surely he could be Nat as well, or Neil maybe?) receives a message from Scotland Yard that a Fenian group known as Clan na Gael had threatened to bomb all public buildings in 6 months time.  I’m no expert on organising a terror campaign but you would think that a half-year’s advanced warning would give the authorities the opportunity to make preparations or even prevent the attack.

On returning to his lonely bachelor apartment, Thaniel, finds that his room has been broken into.  Nothing has been taken but a rather sophisticated pocket-watch has been left. 

We are then introduced to Grace Carrow, a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  Grace is a scientist who also owns sophisticated watch.  She suffers from the overarching patriarchal and sexist attitudes prevalent at that point in history but is not a fan of women’s suffrage.  The ladies attending a Suffrage meeting are shown as rather muddle-headed sheep and Grace notes that if women were to be given the vote she would move to Germany.  Through the book we see Grace kicking out against social norms and expectations.  She wants to study, she wants to conduct experiments but it is a struggle.  Her father makes the quite depressing comment that 

One of the great evils of our time for men and women is to be educated beyond one’s purpose in life. 

Both Thaniel’s (it’s making my teeth itch typing that now) and Grace’s watches were built by master Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori.  The watch left in Thaniel’s room saves his life and his attempts to find answers leads him to the workshop of Mori.  

As the story is set in England and features a Japanese man there is, perhaps inevitably, lots of tea.  Thaniel and Mori’s friendship is polite, quiet, deep felt and quite touching.  One of the best ideas in the book is ‘Katsu’ a clockwork Octopus made by Mori that includes random gears that allows Katsu to appear to have a mind of its own.  

Mori has an ability that is unique, inexplicable and, when used, likely to cause fear and suspicion in those around him.  It is this ability that brings Thaniel (make it stop!) into his life.  

The story brings Grace and Nathaniel together in a mutually convenient partnership in which both aim to find a personal truth.  The themes of the book are free-will, chaos theory and predetermination in a London where sexual-equality and gay rights are not in existence.

Overall there were some quite nice parts to the book.  Mori and Katsu were by far the most interesting characters.  I felt ambivalent about the storyline, it had no strong impact and the ending was confusing and not particularly satisfying.  Nice cover though. 

Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Orbit – 2014)

From the title, you will probably guess that Harry August does not have just one life to live.  In fact, he does not have fifteen either.  Harry is a rare type of person who lives his life again and again.  “How very dull” you might think.  However, Harry and a select few like him does not just relive his life, he remembers his past lives allowing him to live a different life each time, but over the same time period.

Harry describes three stages of life for those who live life in cycles, ‘rejection, exploration and acceptance’ An interesting twist on how people would normally live their lives, maybe even a reversal.    What would your reaction be to remembering a previous life?  You could avoid previous questionable life choices,  become a millionaire and take greater risks with impunity.  

Despite, or because of, the many incidents, tragedies and pain in Harry’s lives he is quite the stoic.  He is a very likeable character but accepts most things that happen to him with equanimity.  This is possible because whilst even the greatest trial might cause him pain and death, it does not end his life.

The writing is often humorous, Harry fights in World War II in many of his lives and in one of them he sells his medal in 1961 when he needed to pay for a new boiler.  In describing the lives of ‘immortals’, Claire North also writes in a way which can seem quite profound.  A character states:

“.there is no greater isolation a man may experience than to be lonely in a crowd.  He may nod, and smile, and say the right thing, but event by this pretence his soul is pushed further away from the kinship of men.”

This is likely to strike a chord with many.   Less seriously, it is also an apt description of my experience of Twitter.  

Harry finds others like himself and discovers the Cronus Club, a loose affilition for helping those who lives are circular and preventing the excesses of their peers who might use their knowledge to cause great disasters.

Claire North introduces a very novel approach to the sci-fi time travel trope.   Whilst Harry, and those like him, are borne at exactly the same time and place following each death, messages can be passed backward and forward through the ages.  It takes a few minutes to get this straight in your mind but its an impressive invention.   At one point a 6 year old Harry goes to deliver a message to a very old man who is dying in hospital so that he can pass it on when he is reborn.  Harry studies the old man’s medical notes and the old man says;

Can’t stand bloody doctors, especially when they’re five years old.”

Harry befriends Vincent Rankis, a brilliant scientist whose hubris threatens everyone.  Vincent wants to build a machine that will be able to explain and predict everything.  Harry assists him but must eventually aim to restrain Vincent.  This seemed to be something of a critique on over-reaching and the amoralism of scientific pursuit.  Scientists might say that their discoveries are neither good nor bad, it is the use to which people put them that leads to moral judgements.  

This is a gripping and excellently written book, one of the best I have read this year.  

Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador -2014)

Extraordinary book alert.  This book has attracted significant critical acclaim and it is easy to see why as it is entrancing from the first scene, which sees a famous Canadian actor (3 times divorced) suffer a heart attack during a staging of King Lear.  

The actor is Arthur Leander, a thoroughly likeable character, despite his multiple relationships, and the person who acts as a touchstone for many other characters in the book.  

Whilst Leander struggles on stage, a former paparazzo and aspiring paramedic called Javeen does his best to resuscitate the actor.  This traumatic event is soon overshadowed by news Javeen receives from a doctor friend who that the recently discovered Georgia Flu is spreading at an exponential rate and killing significantly more people than previous flu strains.  This sets the stage for an apocalyptic event in which the population is decimated and civilisation, as we understand it, comes to an end.  

We are introduced to the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors, who travel between the remnants of towns and villages performing Shakesperian plays for the sparse, but usually appreciating populations.  

The action is taking place around 20 years after the ‘collapse’.  We are introduced to Kirsten, who was a child actor at Arthur Leander’s final stage performance.  Leander handed Kirsten a couple of sci-fi comics about Station Eleven, hence the name of this novel.  

The Travelling Symphony has to hunt for food, fight for scarce resources and set up nightly watches to protect themselves, they are not just a bunch of  artistes.  There is friction within the group but also fierce camaraderie, interdependence and love.  

“But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy when it didn’t matter who’d used the last of the rosin on their bow or who anyone had slept with.”

“someone … had written “Sartre: He’ll is other people” in pen inside on of the caravans, and someone else had scratched out “other people” and substituted “flutes”.

The lead caravan is labelled The Travelling Symphony – Because survival is insufficient.  Attempting to get to the bottom of what is important in life, what makes it worth living and what seems critical but is in effect inessential, is one of the main themes of this book and it will certainly make readers reflect on their own lives.  

In between the Travelling Symphony narrative, chapters focus on extracts from books and letters, mostly relating to Arthur Leander.  These reveal that, like many of us, characters had been sleepwalking through life, climbing a career ladder that has been leant against the wrong wall.  Prior to the collapse, the characters lacked meaning and joy.  After the collapse, people miss the comforts and convenience of civilisation, life is brutal, but the Symphony help to bring happiness and beauty into the harsh realities of daily life.

Whilst we would all miss running water, lighting, shops, the internet, how many of a us would actually miss the daily alienating grind of modern working life and the corporate bull that accompanies it?  

The Symphony stumble across a settlement controlled by a serene but brutally insane prophet and their fate becomes snarled up in his ‘higher calling.’  Kirsten and several of her friends become separated from the Symphony and must attempt to reconnect at the Museum of Civilisation’, their previously agreed destination, which is where the Prophet is known to have come from and still contains links to the long deceased Arthur Leander.  

This is a phenomenal book.  The story deals with a post apocalyptic world tenderly and realistically.  The characters feel real and we can empathise with what they have lost and their search for the real spark of joy in living.  The bigger themes may lead to some soul-searching within the readers which can only be for the good.  

Highly recommended 

Book Review: The Space Between Things by Charlie Hill (Indigo Dreams Publishing – 2010)

This was Charlie Hill’s first novel. The usual advice for aspiring novelists is to write about what you know. Charlie Hill obviously knows the Birmingham suburb of Moseley very well as his novel is largely situated in its parks pubs and Victorian houses, partitioned and let as flats. The suburb is described accurately in the book. “Moseley may once have been the best looking district of south Birmingham, now it was fraying round the edges, an unremarkable looking place.” 

The book is set between 1990 and 1993ish and the domestic and international politics of that time form the backdrop. At a party to celebrate the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, Arch, a dope-dealing, dole-drawing, feckless individual with no prospects and no goals apart from finding the next party, meets a girl called Verity (or Vee). Arch is smitten from the outset. Vee works as a photographer for a human rights agency that wants evidence of atrocities being carried out in the former Yugoslavia where the conflict between Bosnians, Serbs and others is in full-tilt.  

Arch too finds politics and a purpose in life after attending the notorious Castlemorton common rave and falls in with a crew of anti-road protestors, full of righteous rage over the plans for Twyford Down. In sharp contrast to Vee’s experience of a humanitarian and political crisis, Arch’s political motivation seems to be an extension of his love of a free party together with an ill-defined demand for freedom. You might ask ‘freedom from what?’ and ‘freedom to do what?’ and the answers would seem to be ‘freedom from The Man’ and ‘freedom to party wherever and whenever I want to.’ 

Arch feels that he is part of a movement with a worthwhile goal. He has the opportunity to join the anti-road protests, to become infamous like Swampy (remember him?) but never quite takes that step. He remains on the fringes, dancing to techno and dropping ecstasy. However, this is a kind of progression as ‘getting by’ was his previous modus operandi. 

The book is peppered with colloquialisms such as Oh’ ar (signalling affirmation), Yampy (a stupid person), Mardy (stroppy or moody) and Geez (short for geezer, meaning mate). Some of these are used particularly in Birmingham but some are universal. Those who try to avoid the much unloved Brummie dialect should not be put off as these colloquialisms are not used to the point of distraction.

The dole-scrounging laziness of Arch and his friends would raise the hackles of most of us who work for a living but the characters are human and there are many funny passages. Arch and his mates dedicate themselves to ‘creative indolence’. 

Arch and Vee hook up but for the most part it is a long distance relationship. Vee sends postcards from the Balkans, her memories of Arch and his easy going attitude and simplistic approach clearly buoying her mood after witnessing brutal and bloody scenes. For his part, Arch misses Vee but shows little interest in what she is doing or the conflict. At one point Arch asks a friend, who pays more interest to the news, what the Balkan conflict is about, the response is: 

“It’s Serbians and Croatians and Bosnians and anyone else who can lay their hands on a gun as far as I can see. Muslims as well, for what that’s worth. They’re all turbo nutters, Arch, don’t you worry about that. You’ll never work out what’s going on though, so you might as well not bother. Come to think of it, you never used to bother. Why start now?” 

It’s a great passage and one that sums up the complicated nature of the conflict and Arch’s previous antipathy for global politics.  

Whilst Vee is away, Arch and his pals revel in the press coverage and the notoriety that they and fellow ‘free-ravers’ receive. In their eyes, being vilified by The Daily Mail validates their actions.

When Vee returns, Arch is keen to demonstrate that he is now an activist and is working to change things in England. He does not talk to Vee about her time in the former Yugoslavia through a mixture of disinterest and not wanting to force the issue. For her part Vee recognises that there are serious issues in the UK about the erosion of civil liberties but is not convinced that Arch’s approach recognises the point.

This is a great first novel full of humour, love, frustration and politics. It will strike a chord with all who remember the free-rave scene, the Criminal Justice Act, the tragic events in the former Yugoslavia and anyone who has passed through Moseley. Recommended