Category Archives: fiction

The Guest Cat – left me scratching at the door

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Lovely Mum bought me Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, I assume because it had such a beautiful cover. The cat’s eyes stare up at you beseechingly in teal foil (the above picture doesn’t do it any justice) and when you leave the book on a table in a dark room they are capable of a slightly unnerving flash when the moonlight hits them.

I love cats, for all the reasons dog-lovers often despise them. I love their haughtiness, their indifference to attempts to suck up to them, the way they sometimes look at you as if to say, “What on earth are you doing, cretin?” So you’d think I’d love Hiraide’s celebration of a cat who came to visit him and his wife in their small guest house. But I didn’t. I wanted to, I did. But this book, for me, was hard work.

Perhaps I’m out of practice with reading difficult books. Perhaps I’m lazy. I tried to apply myself to it, but it always felt like work. When I got home after a long day I didn’t want to pick it up. I couldn’t lose myself in it. Perhaps it’s that I like to dive into people’s lives when I read, understand what makes them tick, and I didn’t really learn anything about the author (I assume from the biographical note that this is somewhat autobiographical) or his wife (her speech is reported but she’s an otherwise opaque, shadowy character) when reading this. I know, it’s about the cat, not them, but it’s hard to really understand what the cat meant to them if you don’t know anything about what makes them tick. It’s hard (at least for me) to care. Since we can’t get an insight into the cat’s thoughts or feelings either, it felt like there was a kind of void at the heart of this book.

Sometimes the prose is beautiful and poetically descriptive and in those places the book feels like a lovely, refined artefact of love. But other times Hiraide gets bogged down in describing in painstaking detail the angles of the alley behind his house and ruminating about the meaning of ‘lightning capture’ versus ‘capture of lightning’. Perhaps it’s a matter of certain things getting lost in translation from the Japanese (and indeed there are some interesting translation notes at the back of the book that support this theory). And of course, not every book ever written needs to be easy and fun. But I found it a bit self-indulgent and humourless if I’m honest, and I just never felt like I was inside the writing. It was an extremely short book but it still felt a bit like a chore. I felt like a cat scratching at the door of a dark, possibly empty house. Perhaps Takashi Hiraide’s writing is just not for me.

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The Adventures of Vaclav the Magnificent and his Lovely Assistant Lena – it’s magic

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Straight off the bat, I loved this book. Go out and find it right now, buy it and read it. Haley Tanner’s debut novel is fantastic and I can’t wait to read more of her work (I’ve been meaning to read this book which has been sitting on my shelf since 2012 so there’s hopefully at least a second novel out by now!). The story of Russian immigrant children, Vaclav and Lena, who live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, near Coney Island, is a story of friendship, magic, hidden horrors, broken hearts and a deep and enduring love.

We first meet Vaclav and Lena when they are ten and nine-and-eleven-months respectively. Vaclav, who worships Houdini whose worn autobiography he has brought with him all the way from Russia, is determined to be the world’s greatest magician. Lena, he is determined, will be his lovely assistant. They practice every day after school at Vaclav’s house, after which Vaclav’s mother, the warm-hearted, hard-shelled Rasia, makes dinner, frequently borscht or something hot and cabbage-related. Vaclav’s home is a poor but happy one, in a quiet, frayed-at the-edges, unfashionable way (this is not an over-romanticised immigrant story, let’s get that straight). Lena’s life, with her cold, unfriendly stripper aunt, in an apartment full of overflowing ashtrays, mould and strange men, is, we feel uneasily, less so. But Tanner doesn’t wallop you over the head with this feeling, which is her genius. She lets it creep into your heart slowly, like it does to good-hearted Rasia.

The character’s voices: small, hard, secretive and quietly bossy Lena; lively, magic-obsessed Vaclav, whose heart is wide open and who loves unreservedly; and kind, tough, proud Rasia, are all alive and fascinating and different. Tanner’s prose is simple, quotidian, deliciously easy to read, and her characters grip you. This book had its hooks in my brain from the first chapter, and I started squirrelling away furtive extra little bits of time to read it whenever I could, much like Lena steals little bits and pieces from Vaclav’s house, a toilet roll here, a slice of bread there (Rasia realises and starts to treat her tiny thefts like a shopping list, leaving extra bits out for her, for this secretive, lonely, frustrating little girl that she loves, dearly, with her huge heart).

This book is excellent, both in its essence, its characters who are authentically, unquestionably alive and flawed, with imperfections you recognise from people you love, or that you share, and in the story itself, which is an absolute page-turner. It’s not a Big Narrative with caps and otherworldly drama – it is everyday, it is just people’s lives, brilliantly documented by a writer with extraordinary sensitivity to the human condition. Even the book’s villains, once they get their say, make you realise that no one is completely good and no one is completely bad. We’re all a combination of the things that made us and the things that shaped us after that.

This is a story of the uncertainty and the coexisting certainty of youth, the rescuing power and also the futility of love in its strongest concentration. It is a wonderful, wonderful story which has sunlight and darkness and borscht and magic and left me tripping over myself to get to the next paragraph, the next page. You know when your eyes start skimming ahead without your volition, desperate to know what happens next? Well yeah, that. It is charming and insightful and memorable and I highly, highly recommend it.

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The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul – not my cup of tea

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Lovely Mum almost never lets me down with her book purchases, but when I saw a Kirkus Reviews quote on the front of this book that said “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” I thought this book probably wasn’t going to be my dream read. The story revolves around a group of five very different women who come together in a Kabul coffee shop run by ex-pat Sunny.

There’s the beautiful pregnant widow Yazmina, who was left for dead by warlords her uncle was indebted to, and who now have their sights set on her younger sister in Nuristan. There’s English tough-on-the-outside, broken-on-the-inside journalist Isabel, wealthy middle-aged socialite Candace who has divorced her husband and come to Afghanistan to be with her younger lover, the mysterious Wakil. And finally there is Hajalan, my favourite, who has sixty-odd years of Afghan history in her memory. She wears her hair short under her headscarf and smokes when her rigid son Ahmet isn’t looking. She’s in love with Rashif the tailor, and has been since they were children, though they’ve both been married and widowed since.

Rashif writes Hajalan letters that she can’t read, and these poignant letters were my favourite part of the book. Their love story in general really moved me … the rest of the book, well, I can’t say it was rubbish. It just wasn’t the sort of book I like to read that much. It was a bit on the worthy side for chick-lit, and a bit on the light side for anything else.

It also had more proofreading errors than any book I’ve ever read in my life (I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m an editor. We’re arseholes.) I found that especially puzzling because the copyright page said that it had been reprinted twenty times in 2013, so they had plenty of opportunities to sort this out. And they weren’t even little things. One of the main characters’ names is spelt wrong on the back for a start. I wasn’t going to get into this because it makes me sound insufferable but I had to go with it in the end because I guess I just am insufferable.

Anyway, this is a perfectly good read that just didn’t hit the spot for me but clearly did for tons of other people as it sounds like it sold bucketloads of copies. Kirkus Reviews hit the nail on the head when they said it was “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” so if that sounds like your cup of tea, don’t let me put you off it!

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The A-Z of You and Me – life unravelling

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James Hannah’s The A-Z of You and Me is a bittersweet look back at a life by a man looking at the rapidly approaching end of his life. At forty, death is coming sooner than he expected it and when we meet him he is struggling to cope with this fact. His main carer at the hospice, the warm, lively Sheila, suggests he play a game to help him pass the time and keep his mind active. He is to go through the A-Z naming his body parts and conjuring a memory of each as he does.

We flit back and forth – childhood, terrible teens, twenties, now. Ivo, our narrator, has had a life that is both colourful and full of missed opportunities. In part, it is a painfully authentic story of friendship – how it can be both comforting and destructive, and the author’s strongest talent is his ability to write what feels real, in all its frustrating, messy glory. We can see where Ivo is headed; we have the benefit of hindsight. We want to shake him: “No, not that way! Don’t do that! For God’s sake, can’t you see you’re going to ruin everything?!” But Hannah also paints those prophetic things in the mundane colours they appear in to all of us at the time. The turning points in our lives are rarely things we recognise as turning points on the day. The bus you get on, the decision to go to that club, to let this person lead you here or there.

Hannah writes sweetly, and sadly, about love, without being maudlin, and he writes excellently about addiction too – or maybe addiction is the wrong word. He writes excellently about habit, and that sickening feeling of doing something you know is wrong but you can’t seem to find the energy to halt your progress somehow, until you feel the consequences, and sometimes even then. I read the book when travelling home on a long journey and I cried in the airport, on the plane, even on the tube (leaking sly little tears behind the cover of the pages).

The author conjures up futility, restlessness and regret in a very human way that never feels overblown, and is never tempted to stray into sounding grand. Ivo was never a hero, and he never becomes a hero, even as you feel perfect sympathy with him and understanding for him and his life. He feels like a real person, with all the weaknesses and shittiness that come along with it and James Hannah writes the unravelling of a life in a way that is both painfully honest and deeply moving.

 

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I Know Where She Is – gritty and gripping

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I Know Where She Is by S.B. Caves is the story of Autumn, a young girl snatched from her mother’s side ten years ago, and Francine, a seemingly fragile drunk, who has never been able to come to terms with her only daughter’s disappearance. While her pompous husband Will has moved on with his life, even starting a new family, Francine remains convinced that Autumn is still out there somewhere. So when a disturbed young runaway approaches her with an outlandish-sounding story about what happened to Autumn, Francine can’t help but be sucked in…

This fast-paced thriller is a real page-turner. First-time author and one to watch, Caves lures you in to a shady world where glittering public lives can hide some very dark secrets indeed. It’s easy to relate to Francine who, when we first meet her, is still drowning in the raw pain of her loss, long after the rest of the world has moved on. It’s easy to feel her frustration when her hope against the odds is dismissed as craziness (especially by her ex-husband Will, who I could cheerfully have throttled at times!). And it’s easy to get sucked in right along with her when it starts to look like the trail to Autumn, long gone cold, might lead somewhere after all…

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Replay – love, loss and starting all over again

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Replay is one of Mr Literary Kitty’s favourite books, one of those you lend to people hesitantly, knowing that if they hate it you’ll hate them, or at least you’ll question their taste and the worth of their friendship. (See when I introduced Mr LK to La Haine and he thought it was lame.)

Anyway, Mr LK likes books about time travel and this one is about a man called Jeff Winston who dies of a heart attack aged forty-three and wakes up to find that he’s back in college. Once he gets over the shock he vows to live his life differently this time and he does (when he died the first time Jeff was trapped in a bitter, broken marriage) but come age forty-three he finds himself clutching at his desk again as the pain of the heart attack grips him.

Jeff goes through a number of replays, having wildly different experiences, and I won’t detail them here because I don’t want to spoil one of the most moving, original page-turners I have ever read.

Time travel is essentially a sci-fi theme, and this book seems to have been placed in the dustiest of its corners with a dreary cover and no outward indication that it has mass appeal. But this is not primarily a book about magical, fantastical things. It is about a man and his life, and people and their lives, and about what changes when you change one thing, in a way you can’t when you only have one life.

We can make changes to our lives, of course, but we can’t erase things that have already happened, wipe the slate clean and go back to the start. Jeff Winston gets to, over and over again. The results are fascinating, sometimes sharply surprising, sometimes heartbreaking. This is a book I wish I had written, but I don’t know, even if the incredibly interesting premise had been handed to me, whether I could ever have executed a story as gripping as this.

At times, you are envious of Jeff when he’s backing horses he knows will win – at times, you feel his helplessness when he tries to change the course of history and makes a pig’s ear of it, or when, after a number of replays, he yearns to encounter something that is as new to him as it is to everyone else.

You envy him his chances to wipe the slate clean but pity him when everything he’s built and loved this time is swept away in the relentless loop he lives in. This book is perfect, Ken Grimwood has thought of everything. He’s taken a fantastical element and sewn it seamlessly into real life. It’s gripping, it’s fun, it’s sad, it’s exciting, it sweeps all of human life up in its scope. I’m pleased to say, not least because it means Mr LK still thinks I’m cool, that I recommend this book 100%. Now I defy you not to love it.

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Last Man in Tower – darkness looming

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I loved Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger so I was excited when I was bought Last Man in Tower. There’s no doubt that Adiga is a hugely talented author; he has a beautiful way of phrasing things, a way with description that has you fully immersed – Mumbai in this book is a city under construction and you can hear the cacophony of noise, smell the greed in the air.

The residents of the crumbling Vishram Society tower block are made an offer by oily property tycoon Dharmen Shah. He wants to knock down the society and build new luxury apartments. Some residents with dreams of polished wood cupboards or gleaming new cars are ready to jump at the chance but others, like the blind Mrs Pinto and retired teacher Masterji, resist. As the deadline looms closer, relationships in the society fracture, then detonate, and the residents find themselves in situations that were previously unimaginable.

Despite an interesting premise and Adiga’s obvious skill as a writer, this book fell a little flat for me. There are so many characters that it’s hard to truly get to know any of them, except perhaps for Masterji, whose increasingly untenable position in the society, and everything that goes along with it, leads him to a new understanding of himself. At times, this is deeply moving – he has long been inflexible and self-regarding – and he never becomes an unequivocal hero – but he is stripped bare here in a way that is both uncomfortable and fascinating.

There is so much darkness in this book. The message seems to be that people are capable of huge amounts of evil, that even the strongest-seeming friendships can turn out to be worthless, that people are selfish and greedy and morally bankrupt, that dignity is an illusion – I found it quite desperate in tone. But that wasn’t my objection as such. It was more that with so many characters, I couldn’t get inside the book – I felt like I was just watching a sad show as a passive spectator. The White Tiger had me absolutely sucked in, whereas the people from the Vishram Society are already fading for me. I would still read more Adiga, but this story, with its unrelenting bleakness and lack of vivid characterisation, just wasn’t the one for me.

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